Jews and Gypsies are no longer considered German Reich citizens and do not have the right to vote in either Reichstag elections or the Anschluss.
I checked my watch as I ate the last of the dinner Hannah had prepared.
“Is it alright?” she asked.
I suddenly realized that I’d been gulping it down without really concentrating on what I was eating. I paid more attention, savoring the current mouthful: lamb goulash with sweet paprika and potatoes. “Very nice—as it always is.” Hannah was a good cook, but her repertoire extended to no more than eight or nine dishes, which she’d regularly rotate.
“Good, Momma,” our youngest, Elena, just four years old, agreed with a big smile. Hannah had spent a few minutes dicing her lamb into smaller pieces as we’d sat down while Elena protested, “I’m not a baby anymore—you don’t need to.”
Our eldest, Stefan, now nine, simply smiled and nodded, not wanting anything to interrupt his racehorse eating—though his was more through enjoyment than eagerness to be somewhere else.
My mind was already half on the plans I’d discussed earlier with Mathias.
It was decided that one of us should check out the “amnesty” that this SS officer, Schnabel, had mentioned. It was decided it should be me because I looked the least Jewish; in fact, strictly speaking, I wasn’t Jewish at all. My father had been Jewish, but my mother Catholic, and in Judaism the religion runs through the mother. But the problem was my father had been a very prominent figure in Austria, one of its leading statisticians and also a proud and outspoken member of the Social Democratic Party, the main opposition to the Nazis. So, in many ways my father’s son, I’d be seen as a “token” Jew and agitator.
I’d asked my father one day whether marrying outside of his religion had anything to do with his equally outspoken atheism—my father never did anything by half measures—but he’d just gently smiled. “No, your mother just happened to be the prettiest girl I met at college. It was as simple as that.”
Well, if I was my father’s son in any way, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and all that, I’d followed exactly the same path when I first met Hannah. So beautiful, hair the color of sun-bleached wheat, eyes a limpid green, I could hardly resist her.
But I wondered if subconsciously there was something else going on—the question I hadn’t been brazen enough to ask my father at the time: that his partly burying his lineage to his children was to shake off the Jewish stigma seen increasingly in Austria since the 1920s. And I was doing the same in marrying Hannah, to further shake off that stigma, make my family safer.
I looked across the table at my perfect Austrian family: Elena with her hair almost as blonde as her mother’s, Stefan with his light brown hair and hazel eyes taking more after me. It seemed only yesterday that my father was nestling them on his lap or holding them up proudly and gently kissing their foreheads—though it was in fact over four years ago when, at the age of sixty-four, he’d finally succumbed to the cancer eating him away.
This now was the only possible silver lining I could see to his death. This madness with Anschluss and rampant Nazism—it would have killed him to see it. I smiled inwardly at the oxymoron.
We’d even had one of those classic family portraits taken in sepia a year ago to permanently enshrine it in time, which now had pride of place on our sideboard: the perfect Austrian family. Even the staunchest Aryan Nazi viewing it would no doubt remark, “Ah, what a lovely family!”
Halfway through Hannah settling the children down in bed, the phone rang. Mathias.
“You haven’t left yet?”
“No. I’m heading out in a moment. I wanted it to be dark, but not too late. Why?”
Slow exhalation from Mathias on the other end. “I wondered whether you should go. Otto might be right—it’s all a trick.”
“We won’t know unless one of us checks it out. And I’ll be fine—I’ll just hang back in the shadows observing.” I eased into a lighter tone. “Besides, I look more Aryan than…than Hitler.”
At the other end, Mathias chuckled. That was all that was left to us now: trying to make light of this new dark and threatening storm. “Take care,” he said. “Don’t take any risks. Hitler and the Nazis aren’t worth it.”
As I was putting on my jacket and hat in the hallway, Hannah asked, “Everything alright?”
“Yes, fine. That was just Mathias then.” I didn’t think Hannah had heard any of our conversation, she’d still been busy with the kids. Besides, there was no point in worrying her unnecessarily when it was all probably nothing. “He was reminding me of a new writers group I’d promised to check out. I won’t be long—no more than an hour or so.” I smiled reassuringly.
“Okay. See you later.”
But as Hannah smiled back and leaned in to kiss me just before I went out the door, I sensed an uncertainty beneath. I began to wonder whether she had overheard part of my conversation with Mathias.
The Karmeliter area of Vienna was strongly Jewish, with its market very much a centerpiece. An expansive cobblestone courtyard a hundred square yards, it was open to all traders throughout the week, with the Jewish trading days predominantly Wednesdays and Sundays. A profusion of bright vegetables and fruit from surrounding farms with live poultry in small cages and sometimes a whole tethered lamb. The only difference with the Jewish days was there’d be stronger displays of pickled fish, olives and sweet treats such as baklava and halva.
My father used to live on the edge of the district, but now I lived over a kilometer southwest. As if I’d been moving away from my Jewish background not just with marriage choices, but geographically too.
I’d decided to walk. Best I avoided trams or buses where my identity papers might be asked for. While I wasn’t strictly Jewish, Namal was a common Austrian Jewish name, and someone might remember my father, Ah, the son of Samuel Namal, the outspoken Jewish socialist and anti-Nazi. I have someone who’d like to ask you a few questions. Come with me.
I became increasingly uneasy as I got closer to the Karmeliter area. At least three shops boarded up so far that I’d passed—which I hadn’t noticed when I’d last been here two weeks ago—another two in the street ahead. Had they been Jewish-owned stores? The name MARX on the farthest shop sign with two yellow lines through it leading to a Star of David in the same yellow paint gave me my answer. I swallowed. Things were moving far faster than I thought.
As I turned into the next street, two more shops boarded up, then another one twenty yards opposite with part of its boarding ripped away and the window behind smashed.
More noise from the end of the street, a murmur and rumble of voices—the main market square was only fifty yards away. Sounded like a reasonable gathering. A middle-aged couple walked toward me, shoulders hunched. They kept their eyes stolidly ahead, didn’t make eye contact. Not far behind them were two men in their early twenties, who did look at me before passing.
I looked back briefly. Were they following the couple perhaps? Sudden scuffling and movement made me jump, my heart in my throat. Two cats who’d been pulling at a rubbish bag scampered off only a foot ahead of me. I closed my eyes for a second as my pounding heart eased back. I shouldn’t have come. Maybe I should just head back before it was too late.
But I found the rumble of voices ahead, with a now stronger light visible, drawing me on. Curiosity killed the cat.
On the wall to my side, an anti-fascist and -Nazi slogan had been hastily painted over, but it looked like they’d used the same yellow paint, now watered down—so that traces of the slogan still showed through. Then on top in bolder black paint were the words: Amnestie Sammeln—Amnesty Gathering…and an arrow pointing toward the square twenty yards away.
As the square opened out before me, I saw the source of the stronger light. Two sets of arc lamps on tripods each end of a long trestle table with the same Amnestie Sammeln banner along its side.
As I’d promised Mathias, I shuffled to one side and hung back in the shadows at the back of the square observing. No market stalls or fruit and vegetables today, no olives, baklava, halva or
poultry in cages—just that long well-lit trestle table and some German soldiers one side and a small line of what was probably Jews the other. All looked very orderly.
A couple of German soldiers behind the table appeared to be taking details, nodding at intervals as they made notes, then they would stamp a paper and the next in line would approach. I saw that those who’d had their papers stamped were standing in small huddles at the far end. Some other soldiers were there, but they seemed to be talking amiably with the Jews—no sign of discomfort or the situation being forced, let alone arrest. Maybe Schnabel had been telling the truth after all.
But then I noticed something more disturbing to one side. In a corner of the square a group of people had lit a small bonfire. At first, I thought it was just to keep them warm. But then I spotted a Nazi flag being waved by one of them and saw what they were throwing on the fire: not just firewood, cardboard or papers, but books!
I moved closer to see the books being thrown onto the fire: Bernstein, Freud, Schnitzler, Remarque, Werfel, Zweig… All Jewish or dissident authors!
The closest German soldier shouted toward them, “You shouldn’t be doing that here!”
“How else do we let these Jew dogs know they’re not welcome in Vienna!” one of the protestors yelled back.
It struck me then what had happened. Word had got around that Jews were being given amnesty in the square, so a Nazi protest group had turned up to intimidate them.
Hauptmann, Einstein… Roth… Salten…
But as the flames of the fire leaped higher around the books, I saw another reason the soldier might not be keen on them having the fire there. Two buses on the far side of the square, previously in shadow and darkness beyond the harsh glare of the arc lamps, were suddenly illuminated. And on one of the buses, an old lady was tapping against the glass and pointing to
something in the square, as if she’d left something behind. But the soldier at its side was vehemently shaking his head. As if to say, You’ve been let on the bus, but you can’t come off.
Otto had been right. It had been a trap after all!
I staggered back from the flames—not only the heat, but what it represented! Shifted back into part-shadow again. But as I did so, a couple of books thrown on caught my eye. Even if I hadn’t already recognized the covers, the name was emblazoned boldly on them: Mathias Kraemer. His trademark silhouette modern-day–Sherlock Holmes flyleaf photo clearly visible as one of the books flipped open.
None of my own books, thank goodness—but then I wasn’t nearly as well-known. Probably one of the few times I’d actually felt grateful not to have wider readership. And as I watched the pages curl and the flames rise from my cousin’s book, I must have stayed transfixed a moment longer than I realized. Because when I looked up, I saw someone at the far side of the long trestle table that I recognized: Scharfuhrer Heinrich Schnabel! He seemed to spot me in that moment too, recalling where he’d seen me, because he lifted a hand my way.
I backed swiftly away into the shadows again, but at that moment I felt someone grip tight onto my arm from the side—no doubt a fellow guard that Schnabel had signaled—wrenching me hard away deeper into those shadows.
From The Vienna Writers Circle by J. C. Maetis, copyright © 2023 by J. C. Maetis. Published by arrangement with MIRA/HTP Books.
A Historical Fiction Novel
A gripping and powerful tale of resilience and courage set in Vienna on the brink of WWII, as two members of Freud’s Circle try to keep themselves and their loved ones safe as the SS closes in.
Spring, 1938: Café Mozart in the heart of Vienna is beloved by its clientele, including cousins Mathias Kraemer and Johannes Namal. The two writers are as close as brothers. They are also members of Freud’s Circle—a unique group of the famed psychiatrist’s friends and acquaintances who once gathered regularly at the bright and airy café to talk about books and ideas over coffee and pastries. But dark days are looming.
With Hitler’s annexation of Austria, Nazi edicts governing daily life become stricter and more punitive. Now Hitler has demanded that the “hidden Jews” of Vienna be tracked down, and Freud’s Circle has been targeted. The SS aims to use old group photos to identify Jewish intellectuals and subversives. With the vise tightening around them, Mathias and Johannes’s only option appears to be hiding in plain sight, using assumed names and identities to evade detection, aware that discovery would mean consignment to a camp or execution.
Faced with stark and desperate choices, Mathias, Johannes, their families and friends all find their loyalties and courage tested in unimaginable ways. But despite betrayal, heartache and imprisonment, hope remains, and with it, the determination to keep those they love alive, and Mathias and Johannes at the same time discovering that what originally condemned them—their writing—might also be their salvation.
Historical [MIRA, On Sale: February 14, 2023, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9780778333715 / eISBN: 9780241632635]
J.C. Maetis is better known as British thriller writer John Matthews whose books have sold over 1.6 million copies and been translated in 14 languages. Maetis is his father's original Jewish family name, which he felt was more fitting for this novel.
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