Jakub walked over to the closet door. That the cramped space had room for a closet seemed something not far from miraculous. He wasn’t inclined to complain, though. Oh, no—on the contrary. Neither was Bertha, who came up smiling to stand beside him as he opened the door.
Then they walked into the closet. They could do that now. The day was over. Jakub shoved coats and dresses out of the way. They smelled of wool and old sweat. Bertha flicked a switch as she closed the closet door. A ceiling light came on.
“Thanks, sweetie,” Jakub said. “That helps.”
In back of the clothes stood another door, this one painted battleship gray. In German, large, neatly stenciled black letters on the hidden doorway warned AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. Being an authorized person, Jakub hit the numbers that opened that door. It showed a concrete stairway leading down. The walls to the descending corridor were also pale gray. Blue-tinged light from fluorescent tubes in ceiling fixtures streamed into the closet.
Jakub started down the stairs. Bertha was an authorized person, too. She followed him, pausing only to close the hidden door behind them. A click announced it had locked automatically, as it was designed to do. The grinder and his wife left Wawolnice behind.
Men and women in grimy Jewish costumes and about an equal number dressed as Poles from the time between the War of Humiliation and the triumphant War of Retribution ambled along an underground hallway. They chatted and chattered and laughed, as people who’ve worked together for a long time will at the end of a day.
Arrows on the walls guided them toward their next destination. Explaining the arrows were large words beside them: TO THE SHOWERS. The explanation was about as necessary as a second head, but Germans had a habit of overdesigning things.
Veit Harlan shook himself like a dog that had just scrambled out of a muddy creek. That was how he felt, too. Like any actor worth his salt, he immersed himself in the roles he played. When the curtain came down on another day, he always needed a little while to remember he wasn’t Jakub Shlayfer, a hungry Jew in a Polish village that had vanished from the map more than a hundred years ago.
He wasn’t the only one, either. He would have been amazed if he had been. People heading for the showers to clean up after their latest shift in Wawolnice went right on throwing around the front vowels and extra-harsh gutturals of Yiddish. Only little by little did they start using honest German again.
When they did, the fellow who played Reb Eliezer—his real name was Ferdinand Marian—and a pimply yeshiva-bukher (well, the pimply performer impersonating a young yeshiva-bukher) went right on with whatever disputation Eliezer had found after leaving Jakub’s shop. They went right on throwing Hebrew and Aramaic around, too. And the reb and the kid with zits both kept up a virtuoso display of finger-wagging.
“They’d better watch that,” Veit murmured to the woman who had been Bertha a moment before.
“I know.” She nodded. She was really Kristina Söderbaum. They were married to each other out in the Reich as well as in the village. The people who ran Wawolnice used real couples whenever they could. They claimed it made the performances more convincing. If that meant Veit got to work alongside his wife, he wouldn’t complain.
The guy who played Alter the melamed caught up to Veit and Kristi from behind. In the wider world, he was Wolf Albach-Retty. “Hey, Veit. Did you see the gal who flashed her tits at me this morning?” he exclaimed.
“No! I wish I would have,” Harlan answered. His wife planted an elbow in his ribs. Ignoring her, he went on, “When did that happen?”
“It was early—not long after the village opened up,” Wolf said.
“Too bad. I was working on that clock for a lot of the morning. I guess I didn’t pick the right time to look up.”
“A bunch of the kids did. Boy, they paid even less attention to me than usual after that,” Albach-Retty said. Veit laughed. The melamed rolled his eyes. “It’s funny for you. It’s funny for the damn broad, too. But I’m the guy who had to deal with it. When I was potching the little bastards, I was potching ’em good.” He mimed swatting a backside.
“Nothing they haven’t got from you before,” Veit said, which was also true. Everything the villagers did in Wawolnice was real. They pretended the curious people who came to gawk at them weren’t there. But how were you supposed to pretend a nice set of tits wasn’t there (and Veit would have bet it was a nice set—otherwise the woman wouldn’t have shown them off)?
“Worse than usual, I tell you.” Wolf leaned toward self-pity.
“You’ll live. So will they,” Veit said. “If they don’t like it, let ’em file a complaint with the SPCA.” Kristi giggled, which was what he’d hoped for. After a moment, Wolf Albach-Retty laughed, too. That was a bonus.
The corridor to the showers split, one arrow marked MEN, the other WOMEN. Veit stripped off the heavy, baggy, dark, sweaty outfit of a Wawolnice Jew with a sigh of relief. He chucked it into a cubbyhole and scratched. The village wasn’t a hundred percent realistic. They did spray it to keep down the bugs. You weren’t supposed to pick up fleas or lice or bedbugs, even if you were portraying a lousy, flea-bitten kike.
Theory was wonderful. Veit had found himself buggy as new software more than once coming off a shift. So had Kristi. So had just about all the other performers. It was a hazard of the trade, like a director who happened to be an oaf.
He didn’t discover any uninvited guests tonight. Hot water and strong soap wiped away the stinks from Wawolnice. He took showering with a bunch of other men completely for granted. He’d started as a Pimpf in the Hitler Jugend, he’d kept it up through the Labor Service and his two-year hitch in the Wehrmacht, and now he was doing it some more. So what? Skin was skin, and he didn’t get a charge out of guys.
Reb Eliezer and the yeshiva-bukher were still arguing about the Talmud in the shower. They were both circumcised. Quite a few of the men playing Jews were. Prizing realism as it did, the Reenactors’Guild gave you a raise if you were willing to have the operation. Veit kept all his original equipment. He didn’t need the cash that badly, and Kristina liked him fine the way he was.
He grabbed a cotton towel, dried himself off, and tossed the towel into a very full bin. A bath attendant in coveralls—a scared, scrawny Slavic Untermensch from beyond the Urals—wheeled the bin away and brought out an empty one. Veit noticed him hardly more than he did the tourists who came to stare at Wawolnice and see what Eastern Europe had been like before the Grossdeutsches Reich cleaned things up.
You were trained not to notice tourists. You were trained to pretend they weren’t there, and not to react when they did stuff (though Veit had never had anybody flash tits at him). It was different with the bath attendant. Did you notice a stool if you didn’t intend to sit down on it? More like that.
Veit spun the combination dial on his locker. He put on his own clothes: khaki cotton slacks, a pale green polo shirt, and a darker green cardigan sweater. Synthetic socks and track shoes finished the outfit. It was much lighter, much softer, and much more comfortable than his performing costume.
He had to twiddle his thumbs for a couple of minutes before Kristi came down the corridor from her side of the changing area. Women always took longer getting ready. Being only a man, he had no idea why. But he would have bet the ancient Greeks told the same jokes about it as modern Aryans did.
She was worth the wait. Her knee-length light blue skirt showed off her legs. Veit wasn’t the least bit sorry the Reich still frowned on pants for women. Her top clung to her in a way that would have made the real Jews on whom those of Wawolnice were based plotz. And the sheitel she had on now was attractively styled and an almost perfect match for the mane of wavy, honey-blond hair she’d sacrificed to take the role of Bertha Shlayfer.
“Let’s go home,” she said, and yawned. She shook her head. “Sorry. It’s been a long day.”
“For me, too,” Veit agreed. “And it doesn’t get any easier.”
“It never gets any easier,” Kristi said.
“I know, but that isn’t what I meant. Didn’t you see the schedule? They’ve got a pogrom listed for week after next.”
“Oy!” Kristi burst out. Once you got used to Yiddish, plain German could seem flavorless beside it. And Veit felt like going Oy! himself. Pogroms were a pain, even if the tourists got off on them. Sure, the powers that be brought in drugged convicts for the people playing Poles to stomp and burn, but reenactors playing Jews always ended up getting hurt, too. Accidents happened. And, when you were living your role, sometimes you just got carried away and didn’t care who stood in front of you when you threw a rock or swung a club.
“Nothing we can do about it but put on a good show.” He pointed down the corridor toward the employee parking lot. “Come on. Like you said, let’s go home.”
The corridor spat performers out right next to the gift shop. Another sign reading AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY and a prominently displayed surveillance camera discouraged anyone else from moving against the stream. A ragged apple orchard screened the gift shop and the parking lot off from Wawolnice proper. That was good, as far as Veit was concerned. The gift shop was about paperbacks of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and plastic Jew noses and rubber Jew lips. Once upon a time, no doubt, the village had been about the same kinds of things. It wasn’t anymore, or it wasn’t exactly and wasn’t all the time. As things have a way of doing, Wawolnice had taken on a life of its own.
Veit opened the passenger-side door for his wife. Kristi murmured a word of thanks as she slid into the Audi. He went around and got in himself. The electric engine silently came to life. The car didn’t have the range of a gas auto, but more charging stations went up every day. Though petroleum might be running low, plenty of nuclear power plants off in the East made sure the Reich had plenty of electricity. If they belched radioactive waste into the environment every once in a while, well, that was the local Ivans’worry.
He drove out of the lot, up the ramp, and onto the Autobahn, heading east toward their flat in Lublin. A garish, brilliantly lit billboard appeared in his rearview mirror. The big letters were backwards, but he knew what they said: COME SEE THE JEW VILLAGE! ADMISSION ONLY 15 REICHSMARKS! The sinister, hook-nosed figure in black on the billboard was straight out of a cartoon. It only faintly resembled the hardworking reenactors who populated Wawolnice.
“I hate that stupid sign,” Veit said, as he did at least twice a week. “Makes us look like a bunch of jerks.”
“It’s like a book cover,” Kristina answered, as she did whenever he pissed and moaned about the billboard. “It draws people in. Then they can see what we’re really about.”
“It draws assholes in,” Veit said morosely. “They hold their noses at the smells and they laugh at our clothes and they show off their titties and think it’s funny.”
“You weren’t complaining when Wolf told you about that,” his wife pointed out. “Except that you didn’t see it, I mean.”
“Yeah, well . . .” He took one hand off the wheel for a moment to make a vague gesture of appeasement.
Lublin was about half an hour away at the Autobahn’s Mach schnell! speeds. It was clean and bright and orderly, like any town in the Grossdeutsches Reich these days. It had belonged to Poland, of course, before the War of Retribution. It had been a provincial capital, in fact. But that was a long time ago now. These days, Poles were almost as much an anachronism as Jews. The Germans had reshaped Lublin in their own image. They looked around and saw that it was good.
“Want to stop somewhere for dinner?” Veit asked as he pulled off the highway and drove into the city.
“Not really. I am tired,” Kristi said. “We’ve got leftovers back at the flat. If that’s all right with you.”
“Whatever you want,” he said.
They could have afforded a bigger apartment, but what would the point have been? They poured most of their time and most of their energy into the village. If you weren’t going to do that, you didn’t belong at Wawolnice. They used the flat as a place to relax and to sleep. How fancy did you need to be for that?
Kristina warmed up some rolls in the oven. A few minutes later, she put sweet-and-sour cabbage stuffed with veal sausage and rice into the microwave. Veit’s contribution to supper was pouring out two tumblers of Greek white wine. “Oh, thank you,” his wife said. “I could use one tonight.”
“Me, too.” Veit went on in Hebrew: “Barukh atah Adonai, elohaynu melekh ha-olam, bo’ re p’ ri ha-gafen.” Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who bringest forth the fruit of the vine.
“Practice,” Kristi said as they clinked the big, heavy glasses.
“Aber natürlich,” Veit agreed. “If you don’t use a language, you’ll lose it.” He assumed the flat had microphones. He’d never heard of one that didn’t. How much attention the Sicherheitsdienst paid . . . well, who could guess? Then again, who wanted to find out the hard way? If you started praying in the dead language of a proscribed Volk, better to let any possible SD ear know you had a reason.
The microwave buzzed. Kristina took out the glass tray, then retrieved the rolls. Veit poured more wine. His wife put food on the table. He blessed the bread and the main course, as he had the wine. They ate. He made his portion disappear amazingly fast.
“Do you want more?” Kristi asked. “There is some.”
He thought about it, then shook his head. “No, that’s all right. But I was hungry.”
She was doing the dishes when the phone rang. Veit picked it up. “Bitte?” He listened for a little while, then said, “Hang on a second.” Putting his palm on the mouthpiece, he spoke over the rush of water in the sink: “It’s your kid sister. She wants to know if we feel like going out and having a few drinks.”
She raised an eyebrow as she turned off the faucet. He shrugged back. She reached for the phone. He handed it to her. “Ilse?” she said. “Listen, thanks for asking, but I think we’ll pass. . . . Yes, I know we said that the last time, too, but we’re really beat tonight. And there’s a pogrom coming up soon, and we’ll have to get ready for that. They’re always meshuggeh. . . . It means crazy, is what it means, and they are. . . . Yes, next time for sure. So long.” She hung up.
“So what will we do?” Veit asked.
“I’m going to finish the dishes,” his wife said virtuously. “Then? I don’t know. TV, maybe. And some more wine.”
“Sounds exciting.” Veit picked up the corkscrew. They’d just about killed this bottle. He’d have to summon reinforcements.
They plopped down on the sofa. TV was TV, which is to say, dull. The comedies were stupid. When a story about a cat up a tree led the news, you knew there was no news. The local footballers were down 3-1 with twenty minutes to play.
And so it wasn’t at all by accident that Veit’s hand happened to fall on Kristina’s knee. She made as if to swat him, but her eyes sparkled. Instead of pulling away, he slid the hand up under her skirt. She swung toward him. “Who says it won’t be exciting tonight?”she asked.
Getting ready for the pogrom kept everyone hopping. The reenactors who played Wawolnice’s Jews and Poles had to go on doing everything they normally did. You couldn’t disappoint the paying customers, and the routine of village life had an attraction of its own once you got used to it. And they had to ready the place so it would go through chaos and come out the other side with as little damage as possible.
A couple of buildings would burn down. They’d get rebuilt later, during nights. Along with everyone else, Veit and Kristi made sure the hidden sprinkler systems in the houses and shops nearby were in good working order, and that anything sprinklers might damage was replaced by a waterproof substitute.
Veit also moved the Torah from the Ark in the shul. A blank substitute scroll would burn, along with a couple of drugged and conditioned convicts who would try to rescue it. The Poles would make a bonfire of the books in the bet ha-midrash—but not out of the real books, only of convincing fakes.
People slept in their village living quarters, or on cots in the underground changing areas. Hardly anyone had time to go home. They wore their costumes all the time, even though the laundry did tend to them more often than would have been strictly authentic.
Eyeing a bandage on his finger—a knife he was sharpening had got him, a hazard of his village trade—Veit Harlan grumbled, “I’m Jakub a lot more than I’m me these days.”
“You aren’t the only one,” Kristina said. His wife was also eligible for a wound badge. She’d grated her knuckle along with some potatoes that went into a kugel.
“We’ll get to relax a little after the pogrom,” Veit said. “And it’ll bring in the crowds. Somebody told me he heard a tourist say they were advertising it on the radio.”
“‘ Come see the Jews get what’s coming to them—again!’” Kristi did a fine impersonation of an excitable radio announcer. It would have been a fine impersonation, anyhow, if not for the irony that dripped from her voice.
“Hey,” Veit said—half sympathy, half warning.
“I know,” she answered. Her tone had been too raw. “I’m just tired.”
“Oh, sure. Me, too. Everybody is,” Veit said. “Well, day after tomorrow and then it’s over—till the next time.”
“Till the next time,” Kristi said.
“Yeah. Till then,” Veit echoed. That wasn’t exactly agreement. Then again, it wasn’t exactly disagreement. Wawolnice moved in strange and mysterious ways. The Reich’s Commissariat for the Strengthening of the German Populace knew in broad outline what it wanted to have happen in the village. After all, National Socialism had been closely studying the Jewish enemy since long before the War of Retribution. Without such study, the Commissariat would never have been able to re-create such a precise copy of a shtetl. Details were up to the reenactors, though. They didn’t have scripts. They improvised every day.
The pogrom broke out in the market square. That made sense. A Polish woman screeched that a Jew selling old clothes—old clothes specially manufactured for the village and lovingly aged—was cheating her. Rocks started flying. Jews started running. Whooping, drunken Poles overturned carts, spilling clothes and vegetables and rags and leather goods and what-have-you on the muddy ground. Others swooped down to steal what they could.
When the melamed and the boys from the kheder fled, Veit figured Jakub had better get out, too. A rock crashing through his shop’s front window reinforced the message. This part of Wawolnice wasn’t supposed to burn. All those elaborate fire-squelching systems should make sure of that. But anything you could make, you could also screw up. And so he scuttled out the front door, one hand clapped to his black hat so he shouldn’t, God forbid, go bareheaded even for an instant.
Schoolchildren, plump burghers on holiday, and tourists from places like Japan and Brazil photographed the insanity. You had to go on pretending they weren’t there. A pack of Poles were stomping a man in Jewish costume to death. One of the convict’s hands opened and closed convulsively as they did him in. He bleated out the last words that had been imposed on him: “Sh’ ma, Yisroayl, Adonai elohaynu, Adonai ekhod!” Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one!
Another performer playing a Pole swung a plank at Veit. Had that connected, he never would have had a chance to gabble out his last prayer. But the reenactor missed—on purpose, Veit devoutly hoped. Still holding on to his hat, he ran down the street.
“Stinking Yid!” the performer roared in Polish. Veit just ran faster. Jews didn’t fight back, after all. Then he ran into bad luck—or rather, it ran into him. A flying rock caught him in the ribs.
“Oof!” he said, and then, “Vey iz mir!” When he breathed, he breathed knives. Something in there was broken. He had to keep running. If the Poles caught him, they wouldn’t beat him to death, but they’d beat him up. They couldn’t do anything else—realism came first. Oh, they might pull punches and go easy on kicks where they could, but they’d still hurt him. Hell, they’d already hurt him, even without meaning to.
Or they might not pull anything. Just as the reenactors in Jewish roles took pride in playing them to the hilt, so did the people playing Poles. If they were supposed to thump on Jews, they might go ahead and thump on any old Jew they could grab, and then have a drink or three to celebrate afterward.
A woman screamed. The shriek sounded alarmingly sincere, even by Wawolnice standards. Veit hoped things weren’t getting out of hand there. The less the senior inspectors from Lublin or even Berlin interfered with the way the village ran, the better for everybody here. “Jews” and “Poles” both took that as an article of faith.
Veit ducked into one of the buildings where Jews lived in one another’s laps. As long as nobody could see him from outside . . . A woman in there gaped at him. “What are you doing here?” she asked—still in Yiddish, still in character.
“I got hurt. They banged on my teakettle once too often,” he answered, also sticking to his role. He grabbed at his side. Would he have to start coughing up blood to convince people? He was afraid he might be able to do it.
What kind of horrible grimace stretched across his face? Or had he gone as pale as that village miracle, a clean shirt? The woman didn’t argue with him any more (for a Wawolnice Jew, that came perilously close to falling out of one’s part). She threw open her closet door. “Go on. Disappear, already.”
“God bless you and keep you. I wish my ribs would disappear.” He ducked inside. She closed the outer door after him. He fumbled till he found the light switch. Then he went to the inner door, identical to the one in his own crowded home. He was an authorized person, all right. On the far side of that door lay the modern underpinnings to the early-twentieth-century Polish village.
Now he didn’t have to run for his life. Slowly and painfully, he walked down the concrete stairs and along a passageway to the first-aid center. He had to wait to be seen. He wasn’t the only villager who’d got hurt. Sure as hell, pogroms were always a mess.
A medical tech prodded his rib cage. “Gevalt!” Veit exclaimed.
“You don’t have to go on making like a Jew down here,” the tech said condescendingly. Veit hurt too much to argue with him. The neatly uniformed Aryan felt him some more and listened to his chest with a stethoscope, then delivered his verdict: “You’ve got a busted slat or two, all right. Doesn’t seem to be any lung damage, though. I’ll give you some pain pills. Even with ’em, you’ll be sore as hell on and off the next six weeks.”
“Aren’t you even going to bandage me up?” Veit asked.
“Nope. We don’t do that anymore, not in ordinary cases. The lung heals better unconstricted. Step off to one side now for your pills and your paperwork.”
“Right,” Veit said tightly. The tech might as well have been an auto mechanic. Now that he’d checked Veit’s struts and figured out what his trouble was, he moved on to the next dented chassis. And Veit moved on to pharmacy and bureaucracy.
A woman who would have been attractive if she hadn’t seemed so bored handed him a plastic vial full of fat green pills. He gulped one down, dry, then started signing the papers she shoved at him. That got a rise out of her: she went from bored to irked in one fell swoop. “What are those chicken scratches?” she demanded.
“Huh?” He looked down at the forms and saw he’d been scribbling Jakub Shlayfer in backwards-running Yiddish script on each signature line. He couldn’t even blame the dope; it hadn’t kicked in yet. Maybe pain would do for an excuse. Or maybe least said, soonest mended. He muttered “Sorry” and started substituting the name he’d been born with.
“That’s more like it.” The woman sniffed loudly. “Some of you people don’t know the difference between who you are and who you play anymore.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” Veit wrote his own name once again. “Nobody wants to break my ribs on account of who I am. That only happens when I put on this stuff.” His wave encompassed his shtetl finery.
“Remember that, then. Better to be Aryan. Easier, too.”
Veit didn’t feel like arguing. He did feel woozy—the pain pill started hitting hard and fast. “Easier is right,” he said, and turned to leave the infirmary. The broken rib stabbed him again. He let out a hiss any snake, treyf or kosher, would have been proud of. The medical tech had been right, dammit. Even with a pill, he was sore as hell.
“We have to be meshuggeh to keep doing this,” Kristina said as she piloted their car back toward Lublin at the end of the day.
“Right now, I won’t argue with you.” Veit wasn’t inclined to argue about anything, not right now. Changing into ordinary German clothes had hurt more than he’d believed anything could. The prescription said Take one tablet at a time every four to six hours, as needed for pain. One tablet was sending a boy to do a man’s job, and a half-witted boy at that. He’d taken two. He still hurt—and now he had the brains of a half-witted boy himself. No wonder his wife sat behind the Audi’s wheel.
She flashed her lights at some Dummkopf puttering along on the Autobahn at eighty kilometers an hour. The jerk did eventually move over and let her by. Veit was too stoned for even that to annoy him, which meant he was very stoned indeed.
Kristi sighed as she zoomed past the old, flatulent VW. “But we’ll be back at the same old stand tomorrow,” she said, daring him to deny it.
“What would you rather do instead?” he asked. She sent him a reproachful side glance instead of an answer. Wawolnice offered more chances for honest performing than almost anywhere else in the Reich. Television was pap. The movies, too. The stage was mostly pap: pap and revivals.
Besides, they’d been at the village for so long now, most of the people they’d worked with anywhere else had forgotten they existed. Wawolnice was a world unto itself. Most of the kids in the kheder really were the children of performers who played Jews in the village. Were they getting in on the ground floor, or were they trapped? How much of a difference was there?
Veit didn’t feel too bad as long as he held still. With the pills in him, he felt pretty damn good, as a matter of fact. Whenever he moved or coughed, though, all the pain pills in the world couldn’t hope to block the message his ribs sent. He dreaded sneezing. That would probably feel as if he were being torn in two—which might not be so far wrong.
Moving slowly and carefully, he made it up to the apartment with his wife. He started to flop down onto the sofa in front of the TV, but thought better of it in the nick of time. Lowering himself slowly and gently was a much better plan. Then he found a football match. Watching other people run and jump and kick seemed smarter than trying to do any of that himself.
“Want a drink?” Kristi asked.
One of the warning labels on the pill bottle cautioned against driving or running machinery while taking the drugs, and advised that alcohol could make things worse. “Oh, Lord, yes!” Veit exclaimed.
She brought him a glass of slivovitz. She had one for herself, too. He recited the blessing over fruit. He wasn’t too drug-addled to remember it. The plum brandy went down in a stream of sweet fire. “Anesthetic,” Kristi said.
“Well, sure,” Veit agreed. He made a point of getting good and anesthetized, too.
No matter how anesthetized he was, though, he couldn’t lie on his stomach. It hurt too much. He didn’t like going to bed on his back, but he didn’t have much choice. Kristi turned out the light, then cautiously straddled him. Thanks to the stupid pain pills, that was no damn good, either. No matter how dopey he was, he took a long, long time to fall asleep.