MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
What’s a little girl like you doing so close to the front lines? That’s what he said, in German, of course. It’s a very good question, though “little girl” is a bit of a stretch. I’m nineteen years old, not five. We did always look younger than our age. Anyway, I think a better question is why I walked up to the SS instead of sneaking in. It seemed like a good idea not five minutes ago. Relax, Mia. This is going to work.
Needless to say, I didn’t want to come. It’s 1945 and it’s fucking World War II. Pardon the language. I’ve been hanging out with American GIs for a month. Still, I was seven years old when I left Germany. I never dreamed I’d see it again. I don’t remember much, but I thought … I hoped being here would feel—I don’t know—special. Childhood memories, familiar smells, anything.
They flew me into France with US soldiers from the XXI Corps. A bunch of rude loudmouths, swearing and spitting everywhere. I liked them the minute I saw them. They snuck me into Germany through an unmanned gap in the Siegfried Line. I walked a dozen miles through farmland before I found a German farmer willing to drive me to the nearest town deserving of a train station. From there I spent—I don’t know exactly—what felt like a decade on a near-empty train making my way northeast.
I slept through Bremen and Hamburg. The Allies pummeled Hamburg to dust. I didn’t want to see it. Not the crumbled buildings, not the shattered lives. Certainly not the dead. I’ve seen the war in black-and-white. Fifty thousand civilians burned alive is not something I need in living color. I stayed awake for barley. And beets. Beets and barley and the endless sound of train tracks. Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack.
I watched people come in and out. Little vignettes of human resilience. Children in soldier’s uniforms hovering between tears and laughter. Haggard nurses leaving one hell for another. A man and his boy fleeing the night raids. Like most, they don’t speak, except for the occasional “Put your head down, son” when gray-green greatcoats and jackboots plod the aisle. Ordinary people in extraordinary times. We all stare at the yellow fields, pretending none of this is real. Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack.
We crossed a small bridge near Rostock. There was a body floating in the river below. A woman. She was drifting facedown, her red polka-dot dress bulging with air. She could have been anyone. Sixteen or sixty. All I know is she was dead and no one seemed to notice her but me. I kept waiting for someone to see her. They didn’t. I stared for as long as I could. I twisted my neck backwards, hugging the window until she vanished behind us. I had to see her. I don’t know why. I couldn’t let her … not matter like that.
The man and his boy got off at the last station. An hour later I was here, Peenemünde Army Research Center, where Wernher von Braun is building the V-2 rocket. It’s a city, was a city. Airport, power plant, miles and miles of train tracks. Twelve thousand people lived here, I think, before the Brits bombed the shit out of it. The factories are gone now; so are the slave workers. All that’s left are the scientists. A few thousand brains in a town too big for them.
This place gave up a long time ago. The main building sits alone, as if they forgot to build the world around it. It’s ugly, functional, as nondescript as it gets. The walls don’t bother to hide their scars anymore. Burnt bricks. Boarded windows. Empty streets and run-down structures. Whoever kept things up around here is either dead or gone. Even the grass knows it lost the war. Everything smells … I don’t know what it smells like. Musty. Sad, mostly. I shouldn’t be here. I miss my home, my bed. I miss … I miss Mother.
She said I had to come. “It has to be done, Mia.” I understand. It was her work that enabled them all, including Wernher von Braun, the man I’m here for. A hundred lifetimes had led us to Berlin. Our work, our legacy was here, spread around in the minds of thousands. Willingly or not, they were all working for the devil now, using the knowledge we gave them. Soon, Germany would lose and all that knowledge could be gone. We can’t have that. Preserve the knowledge. That’s the rule. Mother said that’s all she cares about, but I know she can’t stand Hitler using us that way. I just wish she’d come herself.
Hitler should have had von Braun executed six months ago. They’ve already lost. They just don’t know it yet. Everyone else is playing another game, fighting for the spoils. To the victors, they say. Well, the victors will pillage this country. They’ll pick it clean like vultures. The only question now is who gets the meatier parts. The Americans really want von Braun, but the one thing they want even more is to make sure no one else gets him. That’s why they sent me. I’m nineteen and I’m supposed to shoot a German rocket scientist if they can’t get their hands on him before the Russians do. I say shoot. I’m sure they’d be fine with strangle, drown, tickle to death, but men sent me, so I know they had a gun in mind. These are the same folks who think a woman’s place is in the kitchen. Either there, or in a German compound. Go figure.
Mother set it all up. She works as a mathematician for the OSS. The Office of Strategic Services. There’s nothing particularly strategic about them. Mother had the right résumé, she made sure of that, but these people will recruit just about anyone. They hired a player from the Red Sox—the Boston fucking Red Sox—to pose as a Swiss physics student and—I love this part—kill Germany’s top nuclear scientist if it looked like they were close to building an atomic weapon. They hired Julia Child. The chef! They’ll also send someone’s daughter behind enemy lines without thinking twice, apparently. They call it Operation Paperclip. I don’t know why they call it that. I didn’t ask. Mother said I had to come, so I did.
Here I am, five months later, making puppy eyes at the SS. That’s, literally, what the OSS asked me to do. They used those words. Look pretty and make puppy eyes if you get in trouble.
I think I am. I messed up. I told them I was Wernher von Braun’s niece, Lili. That’s what I said. I said niece. I was supposed to say cousin, but I’m so scared I should be glad I managed to say anything. Niece is bad, though. A cousin is vague enough. Everyone has cousins they’ve never met. Niece … He’ll say: “What niece? I don’t have a niece named Lili.” Even if he’s curious enough to play along, the SS will know something’s up just by the look on his face. Stop thinking, Mia. What’s done is done. Puppy eyes.
It almost sounded easy the way Mother put it. “Von Braun will understand. He’s a smart man, and he’s a scientist. He only cares about the work, Mia, not who he does it for.” I hope so. Our plan, the one where I come out of this alive, sort of hinges on that man’s survival instinct. I just wish …
I know why I came, I can see it from here. The steel tower. The high-sloped sand wall. That’s Test Stand VII. Von Braun’s V-2 launched from there and became the first man-made object to make it to space. Right over there, October 3, 1942. I am standing here, legs shaking, in the cradle of spaceflight. This is a place of science, home to one of mankind’s greatest achievements. Wernher von Braun perfected that rocket on the top floor of the building behind me. That’s what Mother wants me to see. She wants me to see the top floor, not the empty concentration camp in the basement.
There’s a concrete footway going from this building to the next. Whoever designed it made it turn at a right angle. Aesthetics, I guess. People, of course, took the direct route. The dirt path they made is three feet wide, and a good eight inches deep. It would take … megatons of cumulated pressure to do that. Droves of starved people in striped uniforms walking to a slow death over and over again. This whole town was built by slave workers; so were the rockets. This is a place of science, and a place of oppression, and a place of suffering.
Countless died—That’s not true. I’m sure the Germans counted them. They all died and not a single person here ever did anything to stop it. Not the young SS staring at me in his one-size-too-big uniform. Not the engineers, not the accountants. Certainly not Wernher von Braun. His rockets rained on London by the thousands—death falling from the heavens—but they killed more people making that weapon than they did using it. I doubt he could have stopped any of it, but we’ll never know because he didn’t try. His commitment never wavered, even after the Gestapo arrested him for treason. Von Braun is a man of science. He’s also an SS officer. How many good men own an SS uniform?
I suppose it doesn’t really matter. The US would want him if he hunted kittens for sport, and I won’t come out of here alive without his help. If von Braun is a true believer, he’ll turn me in to the SS. If he’s a bad actor, he’ll turn me in to the SS. If he wants to surrender to the Soviets, he’ll turn me in to the SS. All he has to do is stay here if that’s what he wants. Russian troops are less than a hundred miles away.
I’ve been waiting for a good thirty minutes now. Something’s wrong, I know it. I’m not sure I can make it out if things go south. Maybe. Grab the kid’s rifle with my right hand, raise it under his chin. Force his trigger finger with my left. I can take him, but there’s lots of open space once I get out of here. I need to be rea—Oh shit, that’s him. That’s von Braun.
Dear God. The groomed hair, the tan. He looks more like a Hollywood actor than a physicist. Mother might be right. I see vanity here, not conviction. This is a man who does research in a fancy suit. He doesn’t have to be a good man. He just has to be smart enough to realize the Germans have lost. Selfishness will do just fine. I just hope his ego wants to hear what I have to say. He’s coming this way. Be ready.
A smile. I’ll be damned. This might just work.
—Sit down, Lili. I’ll be back in a minute.
He doesn’t speak a lick of English, but all I hear is Cary Grant. He’s all smiles and graces. I don’t think he ever turns the charm off. This is a man who likes to be liked. I wouldn’t be surprised if he slept with half the secretarial staff here. His office is meant to impress. Mahogany desk, fancy carpet, wall-to-wall bookshelves. The room belongs at Oxford, not in a concrete building littered with metal scraps. I suppose most of this would feel normal if it weren’t for the war outside, but right now it reeks of denial. This is wall-to-wall pretend, like a movie set. He’s made himself the star of his little world. All I need now is to convince him I deserve a role in it. Only I don’t know how. I sure don’t feel like Katharine Hepburn.
I feel like a child. I certainly look like one. I cut my hair. I don’t know why I did it. I was leaving for Germany the next day. There were a million things to do but I went out and got my hair cut. There is this fancy salon not far from our house. I walk by it almost every day. I see rich people coming out of there and they look so … happy, confident. I wanted that. I never wanted it before but I did then. Going on a secret mission for the government. It was scary, but exciting. I wanted to feel … special. Ha!
Shoulder length, and bangs. As soon as I looked in the mirror, I knew I’d been lying to myself all along. It was stupid, really. I told myself I wanted to feel special, but I wanted to feel different. It’s the first time I’ve done anything by myself. Me. Just me. I didn’t want to look like my mother. Now I look like my mother when she was a teenager. I’m sure I inspire about as much confidence as I have in myself. I don’t think I’d follow me if I were in von Braun’s fancy shoes.
Not like my mother … Funny. Who else is there? I don’t even know who I am without her. I don’t know why I can force a door open without breaking a sweat, why I find people more cryptic than differential equations. Mother is the only person I relate to. I am exactly like her. I look like her, think like her. There is nothing but my mother. I spend my life following the rules she taught me, pursuing the one goal she told me to pursue.
Take them to the stars, before Evil comes and kills them all. My mother’s words. Her mother’s words, and her mother’s, and her mother’s. Our lives boil down to a single sentence, a handful of symbols on an ancient piece of jewelry. I thought it was a gift when Mother said I could wear it. Now that necklace hangs heavy like a manacle.
The world is doomed, and we must get people off of it. That’s what’s important. Not this war, not the first one or the next one. Not the woman in the river. Our fight is against gravity, and von Braun can help us win it. Mother said all that, of course. She’s the one who believes. I only know we’re the same, so I follow. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to work.
Begin the Beguine
—Do you know who I am? Look around you. I created all this. I made the V-2! If the Americans were serious about this, they would not have sent a little girl.
He’s smiling. What a creep! Yes, mister. You’re a big wheel. We’re all impressed. The good news is he didn’t make a pass at me. That and they all agreed they should surrender to the US three weeks ago. The bad news is he won’t listen to anything I say. I don’t know if it’s my gender, my skin, or the fact that I look like a fourteen-year-old nerd. Probably all three, not that it makes a difference. What does he think? That I want to be here? I want to go home and drink a milkshake, listen to Big Boy Crudup while a B-17 carpet-bombs this place. But I can’t. I have to be here, with him. Him and a townful of Nazis. Time for some Olympic-level pride-swallowing.
—I’m nineteen, sir. And I understand. I do. You’re a very important man, and a brilliant one. I know that, and the United States knows that. They will stop at nothing to make sure you get out safe. You see, they didn’t send a little girl. They sent Patton’s Third Army. All of it. I’m only here to make sure you’re still alive when they reach us.
—Flattery will get you nowhere, young lady.… How long until they get here?
He knows I’m fawning over him, but he can’t help himself. Now for the hard part.
—Soon, sir. Soon. Unfortunately, not before Soviet troops reach Peenemünde.
—What I mean is we can’t stay here, sir. If we stay, you’ll be dead in a week. Either dead or learning Russian. I need you to come with me.
—Come with you where?
That is a very good question. One that the OSS answered only with “away from the Soviets and towards US troops.” It kind of made sense when they showed me on the map with their small toys. They like pushing toy figures on maps, with a stick. It’s a small map, they could reach with their hands, but they think the stick makes it look serious somehow. Red Soviet figures, blue American figures. Get away from the red toys and head towards the blue toys. Simple enough. What was missing on their little map was about a million little German figures filling all the space in between. One step at a time, I guess. We need to get away from tiny red people.
—Anywhere but here, sir, and preferably without being fired at. The Germans must know they’ll lose Peenemünde. Do you have orders to go anywhere?
—I do indeed.
… Really? That’s it? Maybe it’s a European thing. A friend of Mother’s went to Paris before the war. She said she asked a lady if there was a post office nearby and the lady answered: “Yes.”
—Where, sir? Where did they ask you to go?
—How do you Americans put it? Oh yes. Take your pick.
Wow. I knew German command was a mess, but this … Right there on his desk, ten, maybe a dozen written orders, all from different people. Here’s an army chief who wants him to pick up arms and join the fight on the eastern front. I don’t think we’ll follow that one. Another one asking him to stay put. The wording on these is fascinating. Failure to comply. Blah blah blah. Summarily executed. Blah blah blah. Firing squad. Here it is again. Orders to stay, orders to go. This one is from Kammler himself.
Technically, Kammler is von Braun’s boss. Official title: Beauftragter zur besonderen Verwendung Heer, Army Commissioner for Special Tasks, something like that. Less technically, Kammler is about as close as you can get to the devil himself. Before dealing in advanced weaponry, Hans Kammler was chief of Office C, the same Office C that built all the concentration camps. Now this asshole is ordering von Braun and his men to Bleicherode in central Germany, near the Mittelwerk weapons factory where they build the V-2.
—I think Kammler is our best bet, sir. We should head southwest to Bleicherode.
Copyright © 2021 by Sylvain Neuvel