MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
We entered one at a time. We had waited for hours outside, lined up in the hallway. The room was large, its walls white. In the center of it, a long wooden table already laid out. They gestured for us to sit.
I sat with my hands clasped on my belly. In front of me, a white ceramic plate. I was hungry.
The other women had taken their places without a sound. There were ten of us. Some sat up straight and poised, their hair pulled into buns. Others glanced around. The girl across from me nibbled at her hangnails, mincing them between her front teeth. She had doughy, blotchy cheeks. She was hungry.
By eleven in the morning we were already hungry. It wasn’t because of the country air or the journey by bus—the feeling in our stomachs was fear. For years we had lived with this hunger, this fear, and when the smell of the cooked food was under our noses, our heartbeats throbbed in our temples, our mouths watered. I looked over at the girl with blotchy skin. We shared the same longing.
* * *
THE STRING BEANS were served with melted butter. I hadn’t had butter since my wedding day. The aroma of the roasted peppers tickled my nostrils. My plate was piled high. I couldn’t stop staring at it. The plate of the girl across from me was filled with rice and peas.
“Eat,” they told us from the corner of the room, more an invitation than an order. They could see it, the longing in our eyes.
Mouths sagged open, breathing quickened. We hesitated. No one had wished us bon appétit, so maybe there was still time to stand up, say thank you, the hens were generous this morning, an egg will be enough for me today.
Again I counted the women around the table. There were ten of us. It wasn’t the Last Supper.
“Eat!” they repeated from the corner, but I was already sucking on a string bean and felt the blood surging up to the roots of my hair and down to the tips of my toes, felt my heartbeat slowing. What a feast you’ve prepared for me—these peppers are so sweet—what a feast for me, on a wooden table, not even a cloth covering it, ceramic dishes from Aachen, and ten women. If we were wearing veils we would look like nuns, a refectory of nuns who’ve taken vows of silence.
At first our bites are modest, as though we’re not being forced to eat it all, as though we could refuse this food, this meal that isn’t intended for us, that is ours only by chance, of which only by chance we’re worthy of partaking. But then it glides down our throats, reaching that pit in our stomachs, and the more it fills that pit, the bigger the pit grows, and the more tightly we clutch our forks. The apple strudel is so good that tears spring to my eyes, so good that I scoop bigger and bigger helpings into my mouth, wolfing them down until I throw back my head and gasp for air, all in the presence of my enemies.
* * *
MY MOTHER USED to say eating was a way of battling death. She said it even before Hitler, back when I went to elementary school at Braunsteinstraße 10 in Berlin. She would tie a bow on my pinafore and hand me my schoolbag and remind me to be careful not to choke during lunch. At home I had the bad habit of talking nonstop, even with my mouth full. You talk too much, she would tell me, and then I actually would choke on my food because it made me laugh, her tragic tone, her attempts to raise me with a fear of dying, as if every act of living exposed us to mortal danger—life was perilous, the whole world lay in ambush.
* * *
WHEN THE MEAL was over, two SS guards stepped forward. The woman on my left rose from her chair.
“Sit down! In your place!”
The woman fell back into her seat as though they had shoved her into it. One of the two braids coiled at the sides of her head loosened from its hairpin, dangling slightly.
“None of you have permission to stand up. You will remain here, seated at the table, until further orders. If the food was contaminated, the poison will quickly enter your circulation.” The SS guard scrutinized us one by one, examining our reactions. We didn’t breathe. Then he turned back to the woman who had stood up. She wore a dirndl, so perhaps she had risen out of deference. “Don’t worry, an hour will be enough,” he told her. “In an hour’s time you’ll all be free to go.”
“Or dead,” remarked his comrade.
I felt my rib cage constrict. The girl with blotchy skin buried her face in her hands, muffling her sobs.
“Stop it,” hissed the brunette sitting beside her, but by then the other women were also crying, in tears like sated crocodiles—perhaps an effect of their digestion.
In a low voice I said, “May I ask your name?” The blotchy-faced girl didn’t realize I was talking to her. I reached out, touched her wrist. She flinched, looked at me dumbly. All her capillaries had burst. “What’s your name?” I whispered again.
Unsure whether she had permission to speak, the girl looked over at the guards in the corner, but they were distracted. It was almost noon and they may have been getting hungry themselves, because they didn’t seem to be paying attention to us, so she whispered, “Leni, Leni Winter?” She said it as though it were a question, but that was her name.
“Leni, I’m Rosa,” I told her. “We’ll be going home soon, you’ll see.”
Leni was little more than a child—you could tell by her pudgy knuckles. She had the looks of a girl who’d never been touched in a barn, not even during the weary languor after a harvest.
* * *
IN ’38, AFTER my brother Franz moved away, Gregor brought me here to Gross-Partsch to meet his parents. They’re going to love you, he told me, proud of the Berliner secretary whose heart he had won and who was now engaged to the boss, like in the movies.
I enjoyed it, that trip east in the sidecar. “Let us ride into the eastern lands,” went the song. They would play it over the loudspeakers, and not only on April 20. Every day was Hitler’s birthday.
For the first time, I took the ferry and left town with a man. Herta put me up in her son’s room and sent him upstairs to sleep in the attic. When his parents had gone to bed, Gregor opened the door and slipped under my covers. No, I whispered, not here. Then come to the barn, he said. My eyes misted over. I can’t. What if your mother were to discover us?
We had never made love. I had never made love to anyone.
Gregor slowly stroked my lips, tracing their edges. Then he pressed his fingertip more firmly and more firmly still until he’d bared my teeth, coaxed them open, slipped in two fingers. They felt dry against my tongue. I could have snapped my jaw shut, bitten him. That hadn’t even occurred to Gregor. He had always trusted me.
Later that night I couldn’t resist. I went up to the attic and this time it was me who opened the door. Gregor was sleeping. I brought my parted lips close to his, let our breaths mingle, and he woke up. Wanted to find out what I smell like in my sleep, did you? he asked with a smile. I slid one, then two, then three fingers into his mouth, felt it water up, his saliva wetting my skin. This was love: a mouth that doesn’t bite, or the opportunity to unexpectedly attack the other like a dog that turns against its master.
I was wearing a red beaded necklace when, during the ferry ride home, he clasped my neck. It had finally happened not in his parents’ barn, but in a windowless ship cabin.
* * *
“I NEED TO get out of here,” Leni murmured.
“Shh.…” I stroked Leni’s wrist. This time she didn’t flinch. “Only twenty minutes left. It’s almost over.”
Copyright © 2018 by Rosella Postorino