Berlin, November 9, 1938
By five o’clock on the day that changed Margot’s life, as on many other days, her feet hurt and her stomach rumbled. It had been a long day. She swallowed an imaginary bite of her mother’s cooking and wished it were seven already and she could go home.
The clock over the accessories showcase chimed five. A distant, faintly musical tinkling followed the fading reverberation of the clock’s chime, like water rushing down a dam, accompanied by a barely audible grating or rasping. Margot frowned, listening.
Head cocked, she searched the store. It was empty, except for the employees. Karin, the first year apprentice, swept almost non-existent dust from behind the rack of new fashions by the display window. The soft swishing of her broom mingled with the humming from the sewing machines in the back room, the ticking of the clock, and the unusual sound Margot still couldn’t identify.
Her unease intensified. The skin on her forearms puckered and she hugged herself.
Karin stopped sweeping. “I hear something funny,” she said, and turned to the display window.
Margot dropped the scarf in her hand into the glass case and hurried after Karin. She turned to the large display window and searched the street from between the mannequins.
Outside, Kurfürstendamm, the busiest street of Germany, lay empty, as if all of mankind had suddenly disappeared. She listened, her hunger forgotten. There that sound was again, this time louder. Maybe it was voices mixed with music. She stared out the window, wrinkling her forehead in concentration.
The linden trees along the lone sidewalk swayed in the wind, losing an occasional late leaf. Everything seemed peaceful, but a shiver sped down Margot’s spine.
Why was the street so deserted? This time of the afternoon, crowds should be hurrying to the stores, admiring the new fashions, getting ready to visit the bars and cafés that were interspersed with the stores. The conviction that something terrible and unexpected soon would change her life, forever and for the worse, made Margot sick to her stomach. She swallowed and squinted at the road, searching for the origin of the steadily swelling noise.
“It sounds like squealing,” Karin, next to her, said. She stared at Margot with big eyes.
“I hear it, too,” Margot said. She pushed the woolen dress on a mannequin out of her line of sight, but the thick trunks of the linden obscured her vision further down the street. Now the sounds separated into faint screams and yells, accented with a musical jingling.
“Hey, everybody!” Karin called. “Something strange is going on out here.”
The whirring of the sewing machines stopped. Two girls from the back room joined them, and soon everybody in the store huddled around the display window.
“What could it be?” Karin asked.
Outside, a single black Opel sedan made its way down the street. A scrap of paper, dancing a minuet with a few brown linden leaves, fluttered against a lamppost.
The sound increased. Margot made out drunken laughter, screams, barked commands, and over it all, a musical tinkling. She tried to find some explanation for these noises, but couldn’t come up with anything. The only thing she was sure of was that this wasn’t a happy sound. She crossed her arms, hugged herself, and shivered. For the second time this day, but for a completely different reason, she wished she were home.
The voices became clearer.
“Heil! Heil! Heil! Jews get out!”
A dark mass beyond the trunks of the linden separated into a screaming and yelling mob of people.
Margot’s hand flew to her mouth. She suddenly realized she had known it all along. This was an attack aimed at the Jews. In a flash she realized this assault would be directed at the Jewish-owned stores as much as at the owners. Those undereducated sub-humans aren’t just out for blood, they want to rob and steal, she thought, her face tight.
This shouldn’t be happening. Her step father Max and her mother had said it over and over again, things would get better for Jews, not worse.
“I don’t believe this!” she cried. She wanted to say more, tell everybody around her what she thought of these upstart Nazis, but held herself back with an effort.
“This is bad.” Frau Busch, the owner, hurried toward the knot of girls by the window. The knuckles on her balled hands shone white and her voice rose. “Girls, our business day is over. Gather your things and go home. I need to lock the doors. Schnell, schnell!”
The girls stared at her, frozen like the mannequins in the window. This was the first time Frau Busch ever let them go home early.
Together with the others, Margot ran to get her coat and hat. She plopped the hat onto her head, not worrying if it sat right, and searched the rack above the coat hangers. Where was her purse? She must have left it on the chair in the dressing room.
While the other girls rushed past her out the back door, she turned and raced to the dressing room. There it was, on the bench. She grabbed her purse and glanced into the mirror to set her hat right. Satisfied, she darted back to the coat rack where she struggled into her coat.
A glance at the window froze her. In front of the store two large trucks stopped, loaded to bursting with men in brown uniforms. A mob hurried after them, screaming and yelling. A short, skinny youth with glasses jumped from a truck.
Margot blinked. This man looked familiar. She squinted to see clearer. Yes, it was Hans. In fourth grade, Hans had a crush on her. During recess, he used to pick buttercups for her. And now he destroyed Jewish stores.
What was he thinking? Margot stepped from the shadow of the coat rack and balled her fists. But this wasn’t grammar school anymore, and she’d be better off not to let the crowd outside see her. Heart racing with a mix of anger and fear, she shrank back into the shadows of the coat rack.
Hans lugged a fence post. He looked like an overgrown monkey, struggling with something too big for him. Three older men followed, one after the other, like circus clowns. But instead of hoops and balls they carried strange paraphernalia. One grabbed a carpet beater with both hands, another, instead of a balancing pole, wielded a heavy walking stick. The last one clutched a metal rod. Other men in uniform jumped from the trucks, and the vision of a circus parade vanished from Margot’s mind. The Nazis waved bats, stick, canes, anything that could destroy. With harsh voices they shouted, “Jewish Pigs leave! Heil Hitler! Heil, heil, heil!”
Her old grade school friend, Hans, with uniform cap askew, swung his fence post right through the window. The glass exploded in tiny, glittering shards. Margot winced, as if the blow had hit her. She needed to leave. But her limbs didn’t obey. She stood, horrified, and watched with wide eyes. She felt the scowl on her face dissolve into beads of perspiration.
Her stomach balled up like a fist as shattered glass rained to the ground, sounding like thousands of small chimes. The hoarse laughter of the crazed men gave a chilling counterpoint to the delicate sound.
Margot shivered. If Hans and his cohorts saw her, they might do more than merely hit and kick her. The downy hair on her neck stiffened and she gulped, but still her feet stood frozen to the ground. All she could do was squeeze deeper into the welcoming shadows. With shaking hands she struggled to button her coat.
The other girls had disappeared. Next to the coat rack and the back door, Frau Busch dug frantically in her purse.
A thought for Frau Busch’s safety washed away Margot’s panic. What would they do to her boss if they found her? Frau Busch was always fair, never lost her temper, and treated everybody with dignity. She was a thousand times better than these so-called Aryans out there, behaving like animals.
“Will you be all right?” Margot asked her in a whisper.
“I don’t know.” A quaver distorted Frau Busch’s voice. “Go, go. We need to get out of here.” She tugged out her keys and dropped them.
Margot’s attention returned to the display window. She stood mesmerized. Her heart beat so hard she thought her chest might explode. Her hands around her purse shook.
On the sidewalks of Kurfürstendamm, the greatest, most elegant street of Germany, a ghoulish dance of stupidity, ugliness, and hate, orchestrated by the Nazis, played itself out. Men and women trampled over the glass shards on the sidewalk, pressed through the shattered window, tore the dresses from the mannequins.
A young brunette, her face distorted by greed, pulled a French, fur-collared dress over her head. Buttons popped off, flying in every direction, as she squeezed into the too small dress.
An old, gray-haired woman wrenched a sky-blue silk blouse out of the hands of a skinny boy. “It’s mine, mine,” she screamed.
The expensive blouse ripped. It almost sounded like a cry of despair. Margot shuddered. They couldn’t even loot successfully. This undereducated, Hitler-loving mob could only destroy. Nothing but greed and hate motivated them.
A movement at the corner of her eyes caught her attention. Hans pushed through the display window and gaped into the store.
Hans’ eyes fastened on her. “Margot?” He said, uncertainty in his voice.
Margot returned his stare. He used to be such a nice boy. And look at him now! “What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded, fists balled as if to hit him.
Before he could answer, Frau Busch grabbed Margot by the arm and pushed her toward the rear door.
Margot exhaled and followed her. She should have kept her big mouth shut. This boy, who once confessed his love to her, would now call the others’ attention to her, and her fate would be sealed. She shied away from a sudden image of her lifeless body lying curled up on the spotless showroom floor. Breathlessly, she ran after Frau Busch.
She rushed out the back door and gasped when the cold air hit her.
Screams of, “Heil, heil, heil! Jews get out! Jews out!” echoed through the streets and followed her for several minutes, sending chills of fear and disgust down her spine. Not knowing whether Frau Busch followed, she flew down the back street, only slowing down when she smelled the unmistakable scent of smoke wafting toward her.
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