"Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go" ~ TS Eliot
Every day she woke and wondered if today would be the day. If after years of fruitless searching, of asking questions met with silence, of writing endless letters met with no reply, of dead ends and brick walls, if today would be the day when she’d know. As the days became weeks which grew into years and she still knew nothing, her hope diminished a little.
Six and a half years – over two thousand days – had passed. It never seemed real when she though back on those dark years of the war, almost as though it had happened to somebody else. In a way it had, it had happened to the person she used to be. She wondered if now she’d have had done things the same way she’d done back then.
When she closed her eyes to try and sleep sometimes she could still remember that awful day of separation as though she were still there: the noise and the confusion, the argument and the promise before she’d turned and walked away.
Stay and help build a new Germany.
Although she sometimes thought it started with a drink, really it all began with a school in Austria.
And as she had done every morning since that fateful day, she awoke and wondered if today would be the day.
Berlin, May 1942.
She awoke with a start as the first tentative rays of sunlight pushed their way though the window, wondering how she could have been so stupid as to forget to put the blackout up. As she tried to move the pounding in her head reminded her why she hadn’t and, putting a hand to her eyes, rolled away from the light. A swift glance at the clock told her it had just gone six and she groaned inwardly at the prospect of having to get up in a little under half an hour to go to work. She pulled the covers back over her head, huddling down and closing her eyes once more willing the world to stop turning for just a moment as she did so. Her alarm clock cut through the fitful doze she had fallen back into and, with an outward groan this time, she reached over and thumped it off, dragging herself slowly out from under the twisted covers and reached for her dressing gown. The few paces it took to get from her bed to the tiny room that doubled as a kitchen and sitting room seemed to take much longer than usual that morning, every step emphasising the pounding in her head and the churning feeling in her stomach as she tried to think back through the haze to events of the night before. Pushing open the door to the other room, she was more than a little surprised to discover the figure slumbering peacefully despite the somewhat uncomfortable position on the tiny settee in the corner of the room covered by an army overcoat. She stopped just short of screaming.
For a moment she found herself in a mild quandary, not quite sure what she ought to do about the sleeping figure on the settee, having no real recollection of who it could be or why they were indeed here. Fighting her initial urge to sink down into the chair nearest to her she realised that she needed to wake the person up and get them to leave her flat. It was the proper thing to do after all. There would be talk of course, someone would be bound to notice a stranger leaving her flat but she would rather them leave now than with her when she left for work with her. If only she could remember who this stranger was and exactly how he had come to be asleep on her settee but a fog seemed to have settled over the later part of the previous night in her mind. Taking a deep breath, willing her aching head and the gnawing in her stomach to leave her alone, she reached out hesitantly to shake them awake.
“Hrmm… what…” he stammered, trying to sit up and shielding his eyes from the light.
“Colonel von Laubenbach?” she asked tentatively, as recognition grew.
He frowned at her for a moment with growing realisation. “Fraulein von Stift?”
He swung himself into a sitting position and motioned for Thekla to sit beside him, which she did so a little falteringly. She still didn’t understand how it had come to this – if only her memories of the previous night weren’t so hazy, if only she hadn’t drunk so much.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I couldn’t let you come home by yourself last night,” he said with a smile, brushing his hands through the unruly blond hair that fell into his eyes.
Thekla thought back through the haze that remained over the previous evening. The news had come through about the attempt on Reinhard Heydrich’s life in Prague and somewhere a decision had been made that they would stay at the office waiting for further news. There had been vodka – other things too but it was mostly the vodka that she remembered, the smell and the burning sensation in her throat as she’d drunk it and she remembered the bottle being passed around, voices urging her to take drink after drink. She couldn’t be sure how much only the thought of it now reminded her of her aching head. She winced and pressed a hand to her head wishing she remembered more of the previous night.
“Suffering a little this morning?” he asked with a reassuring smile. “Do you have any coffee? Or perhaps you’d like something to eat...”
“I… No,” replied Thekla decisively. “You need to leave,” she continued, standing up. “There’ll be enough talk as there is. I’d rather you just went. Please.”
“Please, just go. There’s a chance you can slip out without being seen if you go now.”
“Fraulein von Stift…”
“Colonel, I think the less said the better. Don’t you? Look, if you don’t go I’ll be late for work.”
“You’ll be at the office then? Maybe I could take you out for lunch?”
Thekla sighed, entirely convinced this wasn’t the most appropriate moment for him to be asking her on dates. “Yes, alright then.”
“Great,” he replied with a grin, standing up and reaching for his coat before leaving the flat. “I’ll see you later.”
Allowing herself a few moments to sit and wait for the world to stop spinning she decided that it might be a wise idea to bypass breakfast and devote her energies to getting ready for work. As she did so, it occurred vaguely to her that he hadn’t actually said what they’d do about lunch. She shook herself telling herself firmly that it really didn’t matter, he was probably only being polite and most likely lunch wouldn’t come off at all. It seemed better to set herself up for a fall so as not to waste hope.
A strong coffee later, Thekla was ready for work although still feeling a little sore and making her way through the Berlin streets to where she worked in a lowly office position in one of the government departments. It was a pleasant morning for May but she barely noticed it, her mind too full of other things. She wondered, fleetingly, what news the day would bring of Reinhard Heydrich and she thought back to how different it had all been at the beginning of the war.
Berlin, September 1939
She had been sitting reading on the windowsill of her room which was the smallest in the family’s flat when her brother had careered in shouting the news of the declaration of war with Britain. She had half expected it but nothing could prepare her for the chill that ran down her spine as her she tried to digest the news. The Anschluss with Austria and the annexation of the Sudetenland had led to her to wonder how much longer it would be before something happened. She set about ignoring her brother until he grew bored of trying to engage her interest and left her alone, her book forgotten and abandoned on the window will, her thoughts far away. She had been hoping that it wouldn’t have come to this and for a moment she allowed herself to think back to the two terms she had spent at the Chalet School on the Tiernsee in Austria.
Three years previously, and she remembered it only too well, she had made the journey home from The Chalet School in the Austrian Tyrol surrounded by a silence so thick it could have been cut with a knife and the words of the stern lecture from Mademoiselle LaPattre ringing in her ears. As she sat on the windowsill allowing the news to sink in she found herself thinking back to that day.
She had been expelled from the school at the age of sixteen and she still shuddered when she recalled that long, silent and stern journey home with her father. The silence had given her time to reflect on Mademoiselle LaPattre’s words. Her father had begun the journey with a hard lecture on how she had brought such shame on their hochgeborne family with her expulsion before they’d settled into the deep and uncomfortable silence. She had been so scornful of the Chalet School and all it stood for during her time there but now it was being taken away from her she began to see the error of her ways.
The school, its principles and all it stood for had subconsciously taken a hold on her and her expulsion had been a hard knock she had taken.
And that hard knock would now change the course of her war.
London, November 1950.
Even now she thought back on her expulsion from the Chalet School and her unsuccessful career there prior to it. She was only too aware that if she’d never gone there then things wouldn’t have panned out the way they had. She was sure that she’d certainly never have been involved in the things she had been without the Chalet School’s principles. And often she wondered how it would have been if she’d not been so scornful of them in the first instance but rather if she’d taken them to heart and been a ‘true Chalet Girl’.
But then she reminded herself that she’d needed the expulsion to make her the person she had become. And she often wondered that without it would she be waiting as she was waiting now.
Berlin, May 1942
Thekla took her place behind her desk at the Reserve Army Headquarters and idly flicked through the pile of typing on her desk. None of it appealed but she knew she had to do it – there was no choice in the matter.
“Good morning, Thekla,” said Traudl, her fellow typist, a little croakily as she entered the room with a steaming mug of coffee, setting it down with a clatter on her desk.
“Good morning, Traudl,” replied Thekla, her salute equally half hearted. “Has there been any news from Prague?” she asked mechanically, it would raise too many questions about her if she did not.
Traudl shook her head. “Only that Obergruppenfuhrer Heydrich remains in a critical condition,” she said with a sniff that Thekla was sure she had put on for show.
“Do you think he will pull through?”
“Who can say? God willing…” she got no further as the door was flung open. The two leapt to their feet, Thekla trying to ignore the pounding in her head as she did so and found herself looking straight at Colonel von Laubenbach.
“Heil Hitler,” he said sharply with a curt salute. Thekla and Tradul responded in kind. “Fraulein von Stift, Fraulein Heinrich,” he said with a courteous nod to each of them. “Fraulein von Stift, a word outside if you please.”
Thekla nodded in agreement, standing and following him outside and ignoring the puzzled expression of Traudl as she did so.
“I’m afraid I have a lunch arrangement,” he said formally as they walked off together. There was no way that this could ever look inconspicuous. “But what time can you finish tonight?” he asked anxiously as they found a quiet part of the corridor. “I may have to go East tomorrow,” he added in a much lower tone.
She barely dared to raise her eyes to meet his. “Do they expect trouble?”
“Fraulein von Stift,” he said gently. “One of our great leaders has been shot. It’s no example to be setting, why they may even think of trying the same thing with the Fuhrer next!” he cried, although Thekla was sure she caught a glimmer of laughter in his eyes as he said it. She smiled weakly. “Chin up, old girl. I’ll see if I can spirit you away around six,” he murmured in her ear, casting a furtive glance around as he did so to ensure no one was watching.
“The Colonel must have taken a fancy to you,” remarked Traudl with a sigh as Thekla took up her place at her desk once more.
“What do you mean?” Thekla was instantly on her guard. Her memories of the previous night were still hazy and she wasn’t sure if Traudl remembered more than she did or if she was simply baiting her.
“He walked you home last night and now he’s in here as soon as you arrive.” Traudl grinned. “He doesn’t do that for just anyone, you know.”
Thekla turned her attentions back to her work, hoping that Traudl hadn’t noticed the faint blush creeping across her face, deciding it best not to mention that he had spent the previous night on her settee.
They went for dinner that night, and the next, there still having been no order that he needed to go East. By the end of the second night they were on first name terms, he insisting that it was far too formal for her to be calling him Colonel over dinner. She was finding it hard to adapt to calling him Gerd, however, whilst he seemed to have no problem calling her Thekla. There was still no news from Prague, Heydrich was clinging to life and many had begun to hope that he would pull through. He had appeared frequently in their conversations but mostly they preferred to talk about life before the war, and indeed life before the Nazis had come to power of which Thekla remembered much less than Gerd. He had walked her home on both occasions but had never had reason to enter her flat again until the third night when she had offered to cook him dinner instead. He had left early that night in order that they should avoid the talk of her neighbours; there was enough of that in work anyway.
News of Reinhard Heydrich’s death arrived a week after he had been shot and Gerd was amongst those dispatched to Prague in the aftermath. There had been no time for a farewell but she had been half prepared for that. After all she had only really known him this last week – before then he had been a shadowy senior figure in the Reserve Army Headquarters. But things had changed now. Traudl often commented on how distracted Thekla was these days, at least towards her work. Thekla’s attentions were elsewhere – following the news and the progress of the war far closer than she had been known to before and, in particular, the news from Prague, of which there was little.
There was talk of a Resistance movement, a murmured rumour, in Prague that must have been responsible for Heydrich’s assassination. Not for the first time she found herself wondering about those who had the courage to stand up to the Nazi regime. She had never really given it much thought before now, having found it easier to blend in with what was expected of her and avoid attracting attention to herself. She had joined the Bund Deutscher Madel after her expulsion from the Chalet School on her return to Germany and had taken up her post at the Reserve Army Headquarters when the war had started. She had never been particularly enthusiastic about either of those roles just as she had never been particularly enthusiastic about the Nazi regime. Although the ideals impressed upon her by the Chalet School had slowly begun to take hold on her, she continued to cling a little, if secretly, to the Junker ideals she had been brought up with. But she knew that neither of these were compatible with Nazism.
Gerd returned to Berlin at the beginning of August looking tired and worn, the two months in Prague having taken their toll on him. He said nothing of his experiences there on the few occasions that they had met in the corridors of the headquarters; to Thekla he was distant, their conversations little more than fleeting acknowledgements of each other’s existence -almost as though the time they had spent together before he had gone to Prague counted for nothing. She learned not to mind, to ignore the sinking feeling in her stomach when he looked through her. Circumstantial, she told herself over and over, it had been purely that. For that brief period they’d reached out to each other and now he no longer needed her.
“Fraulein von Stift?”
It was early September, the oppressive heat of August giving way to the first stirrings of autumn.
“Could I have a word please?”
Traudl raised an eyebrow over her typewriter at the quietly urgent question Gerd posed to Thekla over her own and nodded her assent. Thekla stood a little hesitantly and followed Gerd out into the corridor.
“Do you have anything planned this evening?” he asked, glancing around furtively to make sure no one was near to overhear them. “I’d like to take you for dinner if you haven’t.” Thekla frowned and folded her arms, shifting uneasily from one foot to the other. “I know, I should have asked before but… things. I’ve been busy.”
She shrugged in reply. “I suppose.”
She hadn’t meant for it to be like this. When she’d imagined it she’d been far less sullen and far more understanding and forgiving.
“Thekla, I’ve had things to sort out since I get back from Prague. Please try and understand.”
She shrugged again. “It’s fine,” she muttered non committedly.
“Thekla,” he said simply, taking her by the elbow. “I need to know I can trust you.”
For a moment she could do nothing but stare at him. “Whatever for?” she asked, wide eyed with curiosity at the unexpected twist to the conversation.
“I can’t say, not yet anyway. But can I trust you?”
“It would be easier if you told me why.” The words came out wrong but she couldn’t stop them.
“I can’t, not here. I’ll come for you later.”
“Okay,” she sighed, not entirely sure what to make of this turn of events. There was a part of her desperately wanting him to trust her, another part that wanted to turn and run and get as far away as she could.
“Good.” For the first time in their conversation a smile crossed his face as he turned to leave.
“Gerd,” she whispered after him, unsure if he could hear her. “You can trust me.”
He heard, but he’d never let on that he had. Not yet anyway.
“You look better all of a sudden,” remarked Traudl as Thekla slid back into the seat at her desk. “I take it you’ve patched things up with the Colonel?”
Thekla smiled enigmatically over her typewriter. “Maybe.”
She didn’t want to give anything away to Traudl. Her teasing was more than enough to be borne without adding fuel to the fire.
Gerd collected her from the office that evening and the two headed out into the eerily quiet streets of Berlin. The tiny restaurant was one of the few that remained open and rationing led to an even more limited menu than it had offered before the war.
“Why have you been avoiding me?” asked Thekla as they waited for their meals.
“I haven’t…” he trailed off, struggling to meet her gaze. He hadn’t anticipated her directness. “Yes, I have. Thekla, it’s difficult. There were things I saw in Prague…”
“But I’ve been keeping a close eye on the news.”
“Propaganda, Thekla,” he whispered.
“When I asked if I could trust you earlier… Thekla, you strike me as someone who just drifts along as ‘part’ of the regime.”
“Gerd, you have to understand that it’s difficult for me,” she hissed urgently. “I was brought up with the ideals of a hochgeborne Junker, as you know, and that’s hardly comparable with what Hitler wants.”
“What about what you want?”
“The War to be over.,” she said simply. “I told you about the school in Austria.”
“The one you were expelled from?”
She nodded, blushing. “Not my finest moment. But the school challenged everything I’d been brought up with and then I returned and the Nazis were continuing to change everything but differently and… you can see why I don’t know where I fit anymore. I don’t belong. I’m not a Junker, I’m not a Chalet girl, I don’t think I’m a Nazi.”
“Does the name Lidice mean anything to you?” He looked around furtively, lowering his tone as he asked.
She shook her head. “Should it?”
“Hitler ordered the massacre of its inhabitants a few days after Heydrich died.”
“Did you…” she hardly dared ask. He nodded in reply, a look of shame crossing his face. “But that’s barbaric!” she exclaimed, in her horror of the news forgetting to moderate her tone. It came out louder than she’d intended.
“Shh,” he whispered, anxious to avoid the attentions of the few others in the restaurant.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, shame faced. “But it is.”
He smiled weakly. “It made my mind up about a few things. I can’t tell you what – at least not yet. I just need to know I can trust you.”
“You can, Gerd.”
Gerd remained in Berlin until mid October when he found himself summoned to the Eastern Front. During the intervening months he and Thekla had seen little of each other but she knew not to push him. He remained enigmatic about his plans for the war and she knew better than to ask him. As a result it had made their conversations often a little forced and strained but she hoped it wouldn’t always be the case. Consequently she felt a little better after he had departed for the Eastern Front, as though some weight or expectation had been lifted from her shoulders.
In his absence, however, she found herself withdrawing from life around her a little. She had never been famed for being a socialite, preferring to keep herself to herself quite simply because it kept life much easier for her that way; not having to engage meant she never had to resolve her inner conflicts. Now in Gerd’s absence she took this a step further. Traudl tried, and soon gave up, to engage her in conversation or to invite her to join in things. Thekla kept half an eye on her mail box, hoping that there might be a letter from Gerd but nothing ever came - but she’d learned not to expect anything from the front. She passed a couple of days quietly with her parents away from work for Christmas, trying to take her mind off things.
It was February when he returned again, remaining distant and aloof from her at first until he chose to make his first move a week later when he had caught her leaving work and asked to walk her home. She had been reluctant to agree but soon gave in to his persistence, although the walk was carried out in a stony silence.
“Can I still trust you?” he asked quietly, glancing swiftly around as they stood outside the building.
“You know you can,” she replied softly.
“I want you to do something for me.”
“I have a friend who needs a place to stay tomorrow night – obviously they can’t stay with me. It’s just for one night. But you can’t tell anyone.”
“I’ll explain. Just not quite yet. You said I could trust you, Thekla.”
“I know. But it’s getting harder when you won’t tell me what you want to trust me with.”
“I know,” he sighed. “I want to tell you and I will.”
“But not now.”
“Fine. Goodnight Gerd,” she said decisively, fighting to keep the frosty edge from her voice.
“Goodnight Thekla,” he replied sadly. “I’ll bring my friend to you tomorrow night – after dark.”
She gave a curt nod in response, fumbled in her handbag for her keys and let herself into the building.
She slept badly that night, feeling that she had barely closed her eyes when her alarm awakened her in the morning. Traudl longed to question her at work, having caught the two of them leaving the previous night but, on realising that Thekla was in no mood for questions, decided against it. Thekla’s mind was hardly on her work at all that day, finding herself making silly mistakes because she was distracted by thinking about Gerd’s friend. She and Traudl saw no one but each other that day, an unusual occurrence. Thekla was glad though, being in no frame of mind to be dealing with other people. After work she turned down Traudl’s suggestion of coffee at her flat and headed straight home to begin her wait for Gerd and his friend.
It was dark when the buzzer sounded, bringing Thekla down to earth with a bump from her idle daydreaming and she slipped downstairs to let Gerd in. He didn’t come in though, instead simply pushing his companion inside with some muttered instructions for the morning.
“It’s upstairs,” Thekla managed to say weakly as the front door shut behind them. “If we’re quick the neighbours won’t notice.”
In the half-light of the hallway she could barely make out her visitor and wondered what she was letting herself in for as they headed up the narrow stairs to her third floor flat.
“It’s not much,” she admitted as they entered. “And I’m afraid you’ve only the settee to sleep on. Can I take your things?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Thekla stopped abruptly, she had not been expecting that her visitor would be female. Logically now she thought about it, it made sense that she would be since she supposed it would have been easier for a male visitor to stay with Gerd.
“I’m very grateful to you for letting me stay,” she continued as Thekla hung up her outdoor things, wondering where she had heard that voice before.
“Have a seat, do,” she said, indicating the settee. “Can I get you anything? I was just about to make myself some dinner – I wasn’t sure if you’d have eaten or not.”
“I haven’t,” came the confessed reply. “I’d love some dinner if you have enough.”
It was only now that Thekla got her first proper look at her guest.
“I… I think I know you,” she stammered. Her guest frowned in reply. “Were you at the Chalet School on the Tiernsee?” She hadn’t wanted to ask; it was a part of her life she preferred to keep to herself but curiosity had got the better of her.
There was an awkward moment of silence. “What makes you ask?”
“It’s just you look awfully like someone I used to know... in another life.” Thekla’s mind was racing, summoning up name after name and trying to place them with this stranger in her flat. “Luigia... no... Bianca di Ferrera?” she asked hesitantly.
There was a brief moment of recognition between the two women. “Thekla von Stift?” Thekla managed a nod in reply, staring at the floor and fighting the sinking feeling in her stomach. “Oh.” There was another silence as the two women avoided each other’s gaze, their minds racing in thought. “It’s alright Thekla. I won’t bring the past up – not tonight. I think, perhaps, it is not the right time for it. ”
“Thank you,” she whispered. “But why are you here?” Curiosity had got the better of her. “And why all the secrecy?”
“I am an enemy of the Reich,” Bianca replied with a smile.
“I…” Thekla faltered.
“It’s hard to remain unnoticed in such things. I already had a reputation anyway for being against Hitler and the Reich but things got out of hand and I was almost caught. I’ve been on the run for the last month or so – gone underground to try and get to Sweden.”
“How am I going to do that or how is the Colonel involved?”
“The first I’m not sure, to be honest – much in the same way as I’ve been smuggled up from Austria really I suspect. There are people willing to take you if you know who to ask. False identities are also a great help. The latter – I was told to meet the Colonel this evening when I arrived in Berlin and he would find me somewhere to stay for the night and I would make my way north in the morning.”
“Is involved in the Resistance movement against Hitler, Thekla.”
Thekla and Bianca stayed up late talking mostly about their respective times at the Chalet School. Faced with Bianca’s memories of a place she’d been so happy, Thekla couldn’t help but feel envious that she’d made such a mess of her time there. And she longed to ask Bianca more about what she had been doing since the War had broken out and about the Resistance movements but decided not to. The walls between her flat and the neighbouring ones were far too thin and she didn’t want to risk anything being overheard. As she lay in bed waiting for sleep to come, she pondered over Gerd during the last few weeks - no months - since he had first asked if he could trust her. She realised that this must have been why. She wondered briefly about what his role in the Resistance was but at that point sleep overwhelmed her and she knew nothing more until morning.
She was a little late to arrive at work the following morning. Traudl said nothing beyond raising an eyebrow before returning her attentions to her typing. Thekla was glad of Traudl’s apparent indifference, using the uneasy silence that hung in the air to concentrate on her work and push memories she didn’t want resurfacing to one side. She didn’t see Gerd at all that day, for which she felt oddly relieved, giving her time to mull over what little information Bianca had given her the previous night, reaching no particular conclusions other than there were things she felt she needed to know, perhaps things that she would be able to help with.
“Can you now trust me?” she asked him two days later as they sat together at the tiny table in her flat, empty dinner plates pushed aside, her question aided by the empty vodka glass in front of her.
“I always trusted you,” he replied simply. “I just wanted to be sure that you trusted yourself.”
“I was at school with Bianca, you know.”
“I didn’t know anything about her until I collected her yesterday evening. I could have been walking into a trap for all I knew.” He regarded Thekla for a moment. “How was it?”
She shrugged. “I’m not so sure. We only talked a little... she was so happy at the Chalet School and I... I can’t help but wonder if I hadn’t been so stubborn and so stupid, so full of my hochgeborne ideals if perhaps I could have been that happy too. I wonder if she’d known who you were taking her too if she’d have come so willingly...”
“I don’t know, Thekla. But I do know that you’re not the person you were when you were sixteen. I know you’ve said yourself that it’s hard to throw off those ridiculous Junker ideals you were brought up with because they’re part of you but there’s hardly any trace of the Junker left about you now.” She blushed. “And I know you are no Nazi either,” he added quietly, lightly brushing his hand down her cheek.
“No, not really. I never have been, not at heart. I just went along with what was expected of me but I never really believed in it. The Chalet School saw to that, I expect. I wrote you know, just before the War broke out, to Mademoiselle LaPattre, the Head, to apologise for my atrocious behaviour whilst I was there. I don’t know if she ever got it. I never got a reply; I suppose, deep down, I never really expected…” she trailed off, rubbing her nose awkwardly with her right hand. “Gerd, Bianca said… the Resistance…”
He nodded slowly. “I am just one tiny part of a huge and, I suppose, really quite disparate movement. There are a number of us within the military who believe that Hitler and his regime cannot – must not – survive. There is more resistance to Hitler than you could ever imagine, Thekla.”
“But how you plan to achieve that?”
“We must get rid of the Fuhrer. There is no other option.”
He nodded in reply. “But let us say no more – the walls have ears, you know. There are safer places to talk about this. Are you in?”
“Thekla, you have no idea what a valuable member of the cause you could be.”
“Codes,” he whispered. “Things you can slip into a letter or conversation that will convey messages to the others but not be understood by those who still will not join us. Are you in?”
“Yes, I am,” she agreed. She supposed she’d always known that she would be from the moment Bianca had told her that was what Gerd was involved with.
Gerd did not leave her flat that night. They slept, a tangled mass of limbs and sheets, in her narrow single bed. Awaking long before her alarm could disturb them, they slipped from her flat, quietly walking the streets of Berlin watching the morning arrive, almost able to forget the War raging about them.
Thekla soon learned who amongst the military personnel at the Reserve Army headquarters she could trust and who were involved in the resistance plans. For the first few weeks she simply conveyed messages until she was eventually invited to join them for a discussion in mid March 1943. She was late, having been held up by Traudl who had been talking, and slipped quietly into the back corner of the small room they were using hoping to go unnoticed.
“Fraulein,” announced Gerd, with a smile as he spotted her. “No need to hide there at the back.” He indicated the seat beside him which was empty and, bright red in the face, she sank into it,
“We have word from von Schlabrendorff” the man on the other side of Gerd said. “It seems the fuse was faulty hence the bomb did not go off.”
“It was tricky for him though,” put in another. “Even if the fuse hadn’t been faulty there were two identical planes and a chance he could have put it on the wrong one anyway.”
“That’s true,” added Gerd thoughtfully. “I’m not sure von Tresckow thought his plan through entirely. If only it weren’t so hard to get at the Fuhrer but his cronies are all to blinkered and loyal to see that his regime cannot be allowed to survive. Look at the Jews…” Thekla frowned. “You look puzzled, Fraulein von Stift.”
“I don’t understand what you mean about the Jews,” she admitted quietly. “They went to be resettled in the East.”
“Propaganda – a cover for extermination. I’ll explain later,” he added in an undertone to her.
The rest of the meeting, brief though it was, continued in a similar vein, most of which Thekla found confusing and hard to follow. It would have been difficult anyway, but made harder by the shadowy nature of the room and her inability to distinguish between the voices of the men hidden in the half darkness. Gerd offered to walk her home afterwards; it was the first time he had been back to her flat since the night they had spent together.
“I’m sorry,” he said as she made coffee for them both. “I expect that was rather confusing for you. I should have explained more to you beforehand.”
“There was never really the chance,” she mumbled with a shrug. “You say it yourself – the walls have ears.”
“Tomorrow – meet me for your lunch break if you can get away. I know a place where we can go and talk. I’ll explain as much as I can then.”
“Okay.” She poured the coffee and they sat side by side on the settee.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, settling his cup on the arm.
“The way I’ve been treating you.”
She shrugged. “I suppose it’s not the best time to be trying to start a relationship.”
“If it were all different I’d do this so much better.”
“I’ll take what you can give until the War’s over. Sometimes it’s hard when I don’t see you for days and I don’t know when I’ll next see you again…” she stopped and bit her lip.
They sat in an awkward silence for a moment before he leaned in and kissed her gently.
“I’ll treat you better from now on,” he whispered. “I couldn’t bear to lose you, Thekla.”
She wasn’t quite sure what to say in reply and contented herself with a smile and a warm glow inside.
1943 dragged by slowly, the War hitting an awkward stalemate with no one quite sure what would happen next. Hitler still spoke of an all out victory for the Reich, as did the propaganda, but Thekla felt that now victory could only be a dream. Gerd had been more attentive to her since that night in March but not so much that it was noticed by the others. Although Traudl liked to second guess, Thekla learned to ignore her hints and comments.
True to his word, Gerd had explained to her his involvement in the Resistance beginning with his meeting with Henning von Tresckow when he had been at the Eastern Front. Tresckow was one of the driving forces behind the military resistance and a chance remark from Gerd had led to his inclusion in Tresckow’s circle of resistants. He also explained the “resettlement” of the Jews myth to her. She had been horrified, wondering how anyone could do something so terrible. He told her of the round ups and the massacres on the Eastern Front and how now Hitler had moved to liquidise the ghettoes and transfer them to the concentration camps.
She thought of Bianca often, hoping that she had managed to make it to safety in Sweden. And she thought of others that she had been at the Chalet School with who would also be in Hitler’s occupied territories. She couldn’t imagine any of them doing anything other than Bianca had. She pushed the thoughts of what could happen to Gerd if he were caught to the back of her mind but they fought their way to the front far more often than she liked.
“Things seem to be moving again,” Thekla commented to Gerd as he walked her home one dark November night.
He nodded in agreement. “Stauffenberg’s brought a lot more to this than any of us anticipated. He’s given us the kick we needed to get moving again.”
“I can’t help but wonder if you’re expecting too much of Canaris though.”
“We need him, Thekla. He can give us far much more than the rest of us put together with the whole Abwehr behind him.”
“I suppose,” she conceded. “I expect I’m just being silly not liking him for looking down on me for being a woman!”
Gerd chuckled and tucked his arm through hers, dropping a light kiss on the top of her head. “And that’s exactly why I look up to you.” Thekla smiled, glad he couldn’t see her blush in the dark. “Still, I have to say that with Stauffenberg on board I think things will start to happen again. We stalled completely after the Fuhrer scuppered our plans on Heroes Memorial Day.”
Thekla sighed. Recent months had been hard for the Resistance members in the Reserve Army, the stalemate of the War affecting their attitudes towards the task in hand as did their frustration at never being able to get close enough to the Fuhrer. This had all changed recently however with the transfer of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg to the Reserve Army headquarters. He had been serving in Tunisia after numerous campaigns until he had been injured by an exploding mine where he had lost his right hand, two left fingers and his left eye that summer. He had met Tresckow back in 1941 when they had both been serving on the Eastern front together and during his time there Stauffenberg had heard eye witness accounts of the massacres of the Jews in the Ukraine. He had arrived in Berlin that autumn with the injection of enthusiasm the weary Resistance needed towards the removal of Hitler. He was willing to do it himself in necessary but it had already been agreed that he was too valuable to risk.
Gerd was sent back to the Eastern Front that Christmas for two months. In his absence Thekla reverted to her original role within the Resistance as message carrier, preferring to miss any meetings as she found them awkward without Gerd, not entirely sure of her role at them. Still, feeling more secure in her relationship with him now, she was reluctant to withdraw from life again, accepting invitations to socialise when they were offered. Her relationship with Gerd was whispered knowledge at the headquarters for which she was grateful, meaning there was nothing untoward in any of her invitations. The change in Thekla had not gone unnoticed by Traudl, although she had learned to not pass comment on it. She returned to her parents for a couple of days at Christmas, returning in time to see the New Year in with Traudl and some of her friends. They toasted in 1944, Thekla idly wondering if this would be the year to see the end of the War.
Gerd returned at the end of February, looking as though he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“Stauffenberg’s getting desperate,” said Thekla as they sat together on her settee for the first time after his return.
“I’m unsure about Steiff,” Gerd admitted. “His heart’s in the right place but he hasn’t the courage to carry the thing through. But I don’t know who else Stauffenberg could bring in.”
“I wish there were more I could do.”
“You do enough.”
“Not really. Just passing on messages and pretending to be invisible the rest of the time.”
“Christ Thekla, it’s not a game,” he said sharply.
She shrank back a little. “I know that,” she whispered.
“You have no idea,” he sighed with a shake of his head.
“No, you’re right. Because you never let me in enough. You talk about trust Gerd, but…”
“It always feels as though you’re hiding things from me.”
“There are things you don’t need to know.”
“Things you’ve seen at the Front?”
She reached for his hand. “Tell me, Gerd.”
He looked her in the eye. “Fine. You want me to tell you about Lidice? About what it was like to watch them round up those innocent men and shoot them? About what it was like to hear the women and children screaming for their loved ones before they were taken away? About life at the Front and on the battlefield? About clambering over the bodies of the dead and the dying to try and make your way to safety? About the moment when you realise that the man you’re shooting at is a human like yourself? About the shot through my leg in Poland that bound me to a desk in Berlin for the rest of the War? About the cattle wagons they filled with the Jews telling them they were going to be “resettled”? You don’t have to fall asleep every night hearing them scream…” he broke off, his breath coming in short and ragged gasps as his whole body shook.
“Gerd, I…” she began before knowing that there were no words she could say as she held him tightly in her arms as the painful, retching sobs racked his body.
The tail end of winter gave way to a tentative spring, March bringing increased urgency in their plans. An ideal opportunity presented itself when Stauffenberg was invited along to a briefing from Hitler at Berchtesgaden. He had gone armed with his pistol only to be barred entry from the briefing for being too junior to attend. Previously such a setback might have brought on despondency but instead it sparked new fervour and urgency. The tide was turning against Hitler and the Reich and they were only too aware that his removal now would save a lot of lives. But there was no way to get to him without arousing too much suspicion; he kept those close to him exceptionally so, making it almost impossible to infiltrate. Although he had never reckoned on Claus von Stauffenberg.
The Allied landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944 served only to add to the urgency to be rid of Hitler. Operation Valkyrie was in place and ready for when that occurred, now it was a question of when, no longer if. After so many years of ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’ the new urgency and the question of an imminent ‘when’ felt strange and a little frightening. They watched the retreating German Fronts, plotting their movements on a map, knowing better than to believe the propaganda that victory was still within the grasp of the Reich. Finally a mere two weeks after the Allied landings, the boost the Resistance needed happened with Stauffenberg’s promotion to Chief of Staff of the Home Army, an undertaking which would require him to report to Hitler personally. It was better than they could have ever hoped for.
“I’m still not convinced by Steiff though,” Gerd confessed to Thekla. “He says he’s willing but he’s bound to get cold feet again. The worst of it is that I can’t see anyone else who Stauffenberg could use. I wish I could do it myself but I’m just not senior enough.”
“In a selfish way I’m glad you’re not,” she admitted quietly.
“We’re all going down if we get caught.”
“You think Steiff would turn?”
“No, I don’t think he will. There’s just so much that can go wrong and it’s so easy to fall in this damn country.”
“I wonder when the Fuhrer will call Stauffenberg to see him,” she mused.
“Who knows? That man does so much on a whim. I have no idea how he survives. He ought to have been ousted long ago. I remember back in ’33 when everyone was saying that this clown wouldn’t last in power…”
“I don’t remember,” she said with an apologetic smile. “I was only 13 and didn’t really follow such things.”
“I forget sometimes how young you are.”
“You’re hardly old – seven years is nothing. I feel I’ve aged a thousand years since the War began. I can’t imagine trying to get some semblance of normality back afterwards.”
“As much as I want it over, I can’t imagine what it will be like when it is.”
“We could run away together – hide from reality. If you still wanted to be with me…”
“I can’t imagine being without you.”
She smiled in reply as she wound her fingers through his.
July arrived and Hitler had requested Stauffenberg’s presence at Berchtesgaden twice – on the 6th and the 11th. On both occasions he had gone with his briefcase filled with explosives, only to be talked out of it by Steiff. Stauffenberg returned to Berlin after the second attempt a little downcast but determinedly defiant, trying to put the murmured doubts against Steiff to rest. It would happen, he was sure, but they all needed to have faith. But what no one had reckoned on this time was the arrest of two of their group by the Gestapo a few days later, a cruel blow to the Resistance movement provoking anxiety and a fervent feeling that ‘when’ had to be at the first opportunity, they could no longer take the risk of waiting.
“The Gestapo certainly have Rechwein and Leber,” Gerd told Thekla the evening that he learned the news.
“Leiter’s doing everything he can to try and get them released but I doubt there’s much he can do.”
“Do you think they’ll talk?”
“They won’t want to but the Gestapo have a way of making people do things they don’t want to. It only takes one person to bring us all down.”
Thekla shuddered. “What would they do to us?”
“Shot at dawn if we’re lucky. Seeing the war out in a concentration camp hoping the Front retreats quickly to bring liberation by the Allies if we’re not.” He shrugged, not entirely sure which of the two was less appealing.
“The War can’t go on for much longer, surely?”
“Who knows? So long as the Fuhrer keeps people brainwashed they’ll be willing to fight for him.”
“I suppose them, we have to hope the Fuhrer summons Stauffenberg soon and he can carry out the plan before… before Reichwein and Leber are made to talk.”
“It’s the only thing we can hope for.”
“I haven’t ever stopped hoping.”
“If we did then we ought to go and turn ourselves into the Gestapo right now.”
The ensuing days were fraught with tensions and nerves, each of them expecting a visitation from the Gestapo that did not come. Stauffenberg was summoned by Hitler to Rastenberg on the 15th, returning once again unsuccessful with a briefcase of unused explosives. Traudl gave up trying to talk to Thekla who was nervous and overtired with proceedings leaving her irritable and snappy in work. She and Gerd talked little as well, sitting in silence instead, lost in their thoughts. When the summons to Rastenberg arrived for Stauffenberg on the 20th it was with a new resolution that he went.
Today would be the day.
Everyone involved with the Resistance who was based at the headquarters of the Reserve Army spent the day on tenterhooks awaiting Stauffenberg’s call to say that he had been successful and to instigate the coup. Thekla, not entirely sure of her role, found herself snappy and impatient, leaving Traudl to wonder what on earth was going on. She had seen no one all afternoon, not even heard any whispered rumours, and, but the time she was due to leave at the end of the day, she was none the wiser. She returned to her flat as had been decided after work, spending an anxious hour pacing the floor until she was due to return to meet Gerd.
She stopped short as he grabbed her arm, pulling her down a side street with an urgency that worried her.
“Gerd, wha…” she began.
“We’re screwed,” he said simply.
“Stauffenberg planted the bomb, it went off, he came back, Hitler survived.”
Thekla swore. “They can’t know it was him.”
He shook his head. “They’re bound to.”
“But what are we going to do?”
“You’re going to get away.” He fumbled in his pockets, shoving a scrap of paper into her hand. “Go to this address, they’ll help you out of Berlin. Make for Switzerland.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We don’t stand a chance. We’ll be overpowered eventually. There’s only so long we can hold out. There’s no need to implicate you as well, Thekla. People will talk even if you make it through tonight.”
“What about you?”
“I have to go back and guard Fromm. We haven’t much time.”
“I’m not going without you. I’ll stay here and fight with you.”
“Don’t be silly, Thekla,” he said firmly, grasping her arms to stop her running. “I won’t risk your life.”
“No, but I will.”
“I won’t let you. Go underground, get to Switzerland. You’ll be able to do more that way.”
“I had a part in this. Don’t I deserve the chance to stay and see it through?”
“Christ, Thekla, what sort of death wish have you got?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” she retorted hotly. “Gerd, I won’t leave without you. Either you let me stay and join you or you come with me.”
He shook his head. “I can’t. I’d be too conspicuous if I came with you. My place is here, Thekla, defending our right to freedom.”
“What about my freedom?”
“You won’t have any if you don’t leave now. We may not have killed Hitler but the War’s practically over for him anyway. Stay and help build a new Germany.”
“What kind of Germany will it be for me without you?” she asked quietly. “I don’t want a future without you in it.”
“I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t love you.”
“Gerd, please, let me stay and help.”
He shook his head. “I can’t hand you a death sentence, Thekla.”
“But you can yourself?”
“I’d die for what I believe in.”
“I believe in it too,” she said sharply, this time unable to hold back the tears as he leaned in and kissed her. For a moment she allowed herself to relax into his arms before he pulled away from her suddenly.
“At best,” he said with a weak smile. “I’ll be chucked into a concentration camp for political deviants to see out the War. Go to Switzerland until the War’s over and then come back and find me.”
“I won’t go without you,” she said again, but the fight had gone from her voice.
“You will, Thekla, you will,” he murmured, brushing her hair away from her eyes. “I love you.”
“I love you too” she replied, kissing him and knowing that it would be the last time.
“Now go,” he urged. “Go straight to that address – they’ll be expecting you. Don’t go home.”
With a nod of her head, she turned on her heel and ran, the tears spilling down her face, unable to look back knowing that she would only see him walking to his death.
London, November 1950
It was still dark when she awoke; it always was these days with winter drawing in. She slid silently from her bed, gathering the clothes that were slung over the back of the chair, checking on the peacefully slumbering figure in the other bed before leaving the room.
“I’m just going to the shop,” she muttered to Georgina, one of the others in the house, who was already up and making her breakfast. “Will you…” Georgina’s reply was a curt nod; she had expected it.
A tentative attempt of the day’s first light was appearing over the terraced houses of Clapham as she pulled her coat tighter around her and hurried along the street. She hurried everywhere, a habit left over from the War days - hurrying home to avoid being caught in an air raid, and then as she fled from Berlin in the wake of the events of July 1944.
She had come to England earlier that year, unable to stay any longer in Germany. She had never been able to find out what had happened to Gerd and she had never found him. But the resignation had not come easily – there had been months and years of fruitless searching, of questions without answers, of endless waiting for silent replies. Knowing that if she stayed in Germany she would always be looking over her shoulder for him, she began the lengthy hard fought process to leave. She wasn’t sure she would stay in England, the enormity of the future scared her too much to think of it too often even though the words of the promise Gerd had forced her to make rang constantly in her ears.
“Is everything…” she asked of Georgina, who glanced over the top of her morning paper and nodded, on her return to the house.
Thekla climbed the stairs, taking care not to tread too heavily on the one that creaked. Leaving the newspaper she had bought on the bedside table, she opened the curtains a fraction to let in the new day. The figure sleeping in the other bed turned over with a whimper, an arm appearing from under the covers to block out the light. A smile appearing on her face, she crossed the room in a few steps, dropping to her knees at the bedside to look upon the son who was the image of the father he would never know.
“Mama,” he murmured sleepily, holding out his arms to her as she kissed him lightly on the cheek and brushed his hair back from his face.
“Time to get up for school, Paul,” she whispered.
Paul had been born in March 1945 in Switzerland as the War surrounding them was played out to its horrible close. He had given something back to Thekla that she had lost in her parting with Gerd. Those who had helped her through Germany and over the border to Switzerland remembered her as being quiet and subdued. Those who knew her after Paul had been born recalled her as a happier person. The pain of parting with Gerd always remained with her, especially as whispers reached her of the fates of his fellow conspirators. Stauffenberg – shot in the courtyard of the Reserve Army headquarters. Tresckow – walked into the firing line on the Eastern Front. Canaris – arrested and sent to Flossenberg where he had been executed in April 1945. Paul had never really asked about his father, not having one was not an unusual occurrence in his class at school so he didn’t really feel he was missing out. Thekla wanted to tell him but didn’t know how.
As it happened every morning, she got Paul up and sent him off to school. Then she’d go and see if she could get any work – it was difficult, the old prejudices hard to shake off and nobody wanted Thekla, the German, to work for them. So she’d go back to the house dejected and despondent again, wondering where the future would take her.
“There’s a letter for you.”
Georgina dropped the envelope into Thekla’s lap later that morning as she sat knitting in the chair by the window. It came in a hand that she didn’t recognise and her fingers trembled as she ripped it open, casting her eyes over the typewritten sheets.
Further to your enquiry … regret to inform you … Colonel Gerd von Laubenbach … executed at Flossenberg…
She saw no more.
The tears she felt she ought to shed would not come. There was nothing but a blank emptiness before her and in that moment, the weight she had carried on her shoulders since she had parted with Gerd was lifted. She realised that she had been grieving all these years having known nothing of his fate. She glanced out of the window, the new day having well and truly set in. Today was a new day. Tomorrow would be a new day. She could go anywhere and do anything she set her mind to. Gerd had taught her as much.
“I’ll go back,” she whispered to the empty room. “I’ll go back and I’ll help build the Germany we dreamed of and you died for. And Paul… I’ll make sure he knows you.”