Southeast of Berlin, Spring
Large knuckles pressed against Kurt’s windpipe as Peter twisted his fingers in Kurt’s collar. “Lass mich los, Neumeyer! “Kurt choked. “Let me go. ” He could feel heat painting his cheeks as Peter’s grip tightened and less air trickled down his throat.
Peter, taller than Kurt by half a head and much broader, stuck out his square chin, as if offering a target.”Versuch es doch mal!”
You’d like that, Kurt thought. The stranglehold tightened. Spots danced on the outside edges of Kurt’s vision and he realized Peter wouldn’t let go until he passed out. If then. Desperate for air, Kurt lashed out, the back of his fist catching Peter’s wrist and knocking his hand away. A ripping sound accompanied the air rushing into Kurt’s lungs. He spun and barged through the circle of Peter’s friends before he could be grabbed again.
“Du bist ein Feigling, Schreiber,” Peter called.
The group of young men laughed, repeating Peter’s taunt with glee.
Peter’s voice rang above the clamour. “Genau wie Dein Grossvater.”
The words chased Kurt down the street. He strode, head down, rubbing his neck, refusing to look back, refusing to show any sign he had heard Peter. Over the rapid tattoo of his heart, he listened for footsteps that didn’t materialize. Though his tormentors hadn’t pursued him, the accusation ricocheted through his mind, taunting him, driving him forward.
You are a coward, Schreiber.
Just like your grandfather.
Kurt bumped into someone, apologized, charged ahead. Minutes later he arrived at the lake. The toes of his sneakers hung over the lip of the grassy bank as he stared at the waves lapping the shore. Calm seeped back into his thoughts and he retreated to a bench in the shade of a maple tree.
An unruly strand of dark blond hair flopped into Kurt’s left eye. He brushed it back. His “James Dean curl”, his mother called it. The thought made him long for one of their classic-movie nights; he hadn’t seen an old movie since arriving in Germany. Slouching, hands in pockets, Kurt rested his head on the back of the bench. Above, light danced through leaves in flashes of white gold. From the corner of his eye, he noted the white triangle of a boat sail.
No question, Germany was a beautiful country. Kurt sometimes missed his parents, even his little sister, Emily. Despite homesickness, despite being teased when he mixed up German words or sentences, despite being hassled by Peter, he wasn’t sorry he had come to Germany on this exchange program. It meant he would have to do an extra half year of school when he returned to Calgary, to pick up chemistry and math, the two subjects he hadn’t thought he could handle in German. Still, it was worth it to get to spend a year in Europe. Getting his request of being billeted in the town where his grandfather had lived as a child had been a bonus. Except for days like today.
He turned his head to see Marta Fischer hiking toward him, arms swinging broadly. Kurt said hello and returned to staring at the leaves overhead.
Marta plopped down on the bench, smoothed her skirt and peered upward. She had become Kurt’s best friend over the last seven months. He figured she had invited him into her life because, as the strange guy from Canada with the bad accent, he qualified as a stray — and Marta was forever taking in strays. Unlike some others, she never laughed when he made mistakes speaking German, just corrected him and continued on, though he rarely needed correcting any more. These days, he even found himself thinking in German, which was the point of living with a German family, going to a German school, speaking German all the time.
A moment later Marta broke the comfortable silence. “Are we looking at something?”
“Good. Because if we are, I’m too blind to see it.”
Kurt smiled, but said nothing.
Marta turned toward him.”What were Peter and his friends bothering you about after class?”
Kurt shrugged. “Neumeyer has been daring me to fight him ever since I scored that goal against him in Sports class.”
“That was a beautiful goal. I’m glad I got to see it.”
“It was lucky. I can run, but I’m no soccer player. Neumeyer knows that. I think it made him even more angry that I faked him out.”
“Peter has been a bully ever since kindergarten. He learned it from his father.” Marta laid her hand on Kurt’s shoulder and tilted her head. “I was inside and couldn’t hear. What was he saying?”
Kurt pulled away from Marta’s touch. Elbows on his knees, he clenched his fists as the urge to hit something surfaced. Walking away from that word — Feigling, coward — had been very hard.
“Kurt?” Marta’s voice was soft, compassionate.
“He called me a coward.”
“Does it matter what he calls you? Name-calling is so … juvenile.”
“It didn’t bother me.”A bald lie. Of course it bothered him, but he couldn’t let anyone see that. The old saying about names not hurting was wrong, especially when he didn’t know if it was true. The exchange program rules were very strict, and unless Kurt wanted to be sent home he couldn’t fight no matter what they called him. He didn’t want to be sent home … but would he fight, if he could? Peter didn’t seem to think so.
“So what’s bothering you?”Marta asked.
Kurt relaxed his fists and stretched his fingers. “He said I was just like my grandfather.” Kurt loved his grandfather, who shared his name and would talk about anything with Kurt. Almost anything. The first 23 years of his life were a mystery. That mystery was part of the reason he was here — maybe even the reason he had taken German instead of French ever since seventh grade. Now, to have someone like Peter know something Kurt himself didn’t … something shameful …
He jumped to his feet. “Are you working this afternoon?” Marta worked part-time at the local pharmacy, Gunter’s Apotheke.
“Good. I want an ice cream. All winter you’ve been telling me about that Eiscafe in Berlin. The best ice cream in Europe, or so you claim.”
Raising her eyebrows, Marta said, “Are you calling me a liar, Kurt Schreiber?”
“No. I’m saying that today is the day you get to prove it.” Kurt forced a smile. “I’m buying.”
Marta stood. “How can I refuse that? Let me phone my mother.” She hesitated, then pointed at Kurt’s neck. “Did Peter do that?”
Kurt felt the torn collar and shrugged. “I’ll stop at the Klassen’s, let them know where we’re going and change shirts.”
Marta scowled at the offending collar, then fished her cellphone out of her backpack and called home. Kurt eyed the water. What he longed to do was jog the eight kilometers around the lake instead of pretending cheerfulness with Marta, but he didn’t want to be alone with his muddled thoughts — far easier to push them aside by filling his mind with the sights and sounds of Berlin.
At the house, Marta chatted with Frau Klassen while Kurt bounded up the stairs and switched his torn blue shirt for a light grey one. He buttoned and tucked it in as he descended the narrow staircase. Frau Klassen fussed over him at the door, sweeping his hair out of his eyes and warning him to stay away from Peter Neumeyer. Kurt gave Marta an irritated glance; why had she told? Marta looked totally unrepentant. The kindly woman, at least a decade older than Kurt’s mother, her own children grown, waved the two young people off with an order to have fun.
When they were a block away,Kurt said, “You realize that next time Frau Klassen sees Neumeyer, she’ll lecture him, probably in front of his friends, and embarrass him. Then he won’t just invite me to fight, he’ll pound me flat.”
“Peter wouldn’t dare…”
“Oh? You’re the one who said he’s always been a bully.”
Marta sniffed, like she always did when she knew she was wrong. Kurt shrugged and raised his eyebrows, then had to jump aside to avoid Marta’s swinging elbow. He laughed, though he wasn’t sure why, since the prospect of being hammered by Peter Neumeyer was a grim one.
They descended into the pedestrian tunnel that dipped under the train tracks, then jogged up the steps to the platform sandwiched between the two tracks. And there were Peter and three of his friends near the automated ticket machine. He almost suggested to Marta that they go for ice cream some other day. He steered Marta to the edge of the platform, as far away from Peter as possible. Maybe Peter wouldn’t notice them.
Marta talked about one of her classes. The words droned together as Kurt’s thoughts turned — as they often did in this place — to his grandfather. This was the same train station his grandfather had used when he was a teenager. Perhaps he had stood in this very spot, avoiding a bully, peering down the tracks, wishing the train would be early for a change. His grandfather would have ridden on a train like the one at Heritage Park in Calgary – a black hulking beast belching steam as it clacked along. The train coming into view was square, red and silent, except for the squealing brakes.
“Schreiber.” Peter’s voice spun Kurt around. The bully sneered. “You didn’t answer me.”
“You didn’t ask a question.” Kurt started to turn away, but Peter yanked him back.
Marta stepped between them.”Back off, Peter. We aren’t bothering you.”
Peter eyed her for a moment, then sneered. “Just what I would expect from your kind, Schreiber. Hiding behind a girl’s skirt.”
Kurt’s cheeks blazed. Fist clenched, he stepped around Marta.
She grabbed his arm.”Ignore him, Kurt. The train is here.”
Kurt glared at Peter, whose scorn was etched deep in his expression. Marta whispered, “Please.”Kurt worked his jaw, wanting to wipe that smug look off Peter’s face. Marta’s sigh urged him to turn away. The quiet, “Just like your grandfather,” followed Kurt on to the train, assaulting his mind like a kidney punch.
Marta sat beside Kurt instead of across from him. “Why would Peter think your grandfather was a coward?”
Kurt traced the graffiti etched into the window. “I don’t know. Grandfather never talks about his life here in Germany. He didn’t even want me to come. It’s like he’s hiding something.”
“I feel the same way sometimes. Opa will talk about different things from his childhood, but never anything to do with the war. All he ever says when I ask is, ‘It’s not important.'”
“If it’s not important, why don’t they tell us?” Marta didn’t answer and Kurt fell silent.
A forty-minute train ride got them to the city. In central Berlin, he let Marta lead the way. He smiled and nodded at what she said, laughed when he thought he should, and agreed the ice cream was great even though his mood seemed to rob it of any taste.
After cutting down two tree-lined side streets, they emerged onto busy Entlastungs Strasse and followed it into the Tiergarten, the sprawling park that Kurt always thought ofas the heart of Berlin. Normally he enjoyed exploring the network of pathways. Today the shade harboured a chill and the fresh greens of spring seemed tarnished yellow. A cowardly colour.
Kurt paused at an intersection. Marta continued on, unaware he had stopped. On a bench beneath a statue of a horseman, someone was reading a newspaper called Die Wahrheit. It wasn’t a paper Kurt ever recalled seeing. Probably a local paper put out by students or an activist group. He stared at the words. Die Wahrheit. The truth.
Marta nudged him. “Come on, Kurt! What’s wrong with you? All afternoon you’ve been moping. Don’t tell me you’re still upset about meeting Peter at the train station.”
“You can’t believe what he said.”
“I don’t know what I believe.” A frown crept across Kurt’s brow. “But I know what I want, and that’s to find out the truth.”
“You told me your grandfather refuses to talk about when he lived in Germany. How do you expect to find out anything?”
“Someone said something to Peter — so someone knows what happened back then.”
“You can bet Peter won’t help you, so where can we look?”
Kurt pointed at the person on the bench, soaking in the sun and the truth. “Berlin had newspapers in the 1930s, didn’t it?”
Marta’s snort underlined the absurdity of Kurt’s question. Of course they had newspapers back then. And that’s where his search would begin.