Excerpt from my forthcoming novel, The Assassination of Baby Hitler, A love Story…
Eighteen ninety-one was not a year of any great tumult. There were no global wars or catastrophes, save for those smarting under the yoke of colonialism, or those beneficiaries to the collapsing Ottoman yoke. There were no pivotal events that altered the course of history, but history was building to something. History was always building to something. And the history of mankind was to exhaust itself amid the tumultuous and catastrophic waves of its own making, only to drift complacent upon the gentler waves between.
Darby had arrived to a Munich undergoing stunning and revolutionary changes, which set the stage for all that would occur for the next century or more. In just forty years, half a lifetime, the population had swelled from one hundred thousand to more than four hundred thousand. More arrived each day, an average of nearly three hundred people daily. They were immigrants, refugees, artists, workmen, entrepreneurs, students and more. There were troublemakers, rabble-rousers and revolutionaries as well. The line between any of them was not always clear. Some came to forge a better world, some to create a better world for themselves, others to prey on the predictable refuse.
We’re for the people, every faction proclaimed, but it was those who were for but select groups of people that were the most dangerous. They played every card from patriotism to despotism. They proclaimed themselves for the nation. They proclaimed themselves the founders of the nation, and built mythologies and falsehoods into legend to justify most anything. They crafted words and raised emotion to confuse and blind and divide, and then blamed the minorities they attacked for being divisive and thuggish. The tension stoked crime and unrest and parceled Munich into factions and left families feeling besieged and alone in a city that no longer resembled the old one. It mattered little that it was a terribly skewed perspective, and that with some effort there was more than enough accommodation for everyone. That truer perspective, however, was shouted down in the din of antagonistic voices and increasingly acrimonious politics. The Press, animated by sensationalism, fed the growing flames until, alone and afraid, the average Munchener gravitated towards those who promised the greatest degree of safety and security.
Darby, for better or worse, and for the moment, was more or less insulated from that darker perspective. Munich, at least this Munich, was new and undiscovered for him. Moreover, any moment spent with Greta was more valuable than anything he could imagine. For the moment, she was his Munich.
Greta had packed a basket for their picnic with a bottle of sweet Gewürztraminer white wine, a bit of dark bread, a jar of pickled beets, and pate she’d made from a bit of leftover Trout. Darby thought that she was stunning in her long dress and jacket. She carried her mother’s black and white lace silk parasol, twirling it on her shoulder as if she had just stepped from a Seurat or Gustave Caillebotte painting, or as though he’d stepped into one.
“You are a vision,” he gushed.
“And you sir,” handing him the basket and blanket, “are, how do you Americans say? A Gal-sneaker?”
“You know, one who, shall we say, is good with the ladies.”
“You must have me confused with someone else.”
“I think not.”
It was a gloriously warm and bright Sunday afternoon. The sky was an unbroken field of blue. The streets were busy with wagons and horses throwing up a racket. The sidewalks were crowded. It seemed as if all of Munich was out, many of them appearing to have the same intention of picnicking in the English garden just as Darby and Greta. For now, that other, darker Munich was nowhere to be found.
She had found an old suit left by a former boarder and lent it to Darby to replace the one that she’d first found him in. Though it was a bit short in the arms and legs, Darby was happy to blend in a bit, save for his red, blue and white bowling shoes. That blending only went just so far. It was the way he walked and carried himself that separated him from contemporary young men. Even the lowly sidewalk vendors, street sweepers and young men comported themselves with a certain refinement and reservation compared to Darby. He walked, chided by Greta, like he had something terrible sticking to the front of each shoe and he was attempting to flick it away at every step.
“You walk like one of your cowboys,” she told him, “like you own the whole street. Is that how everyone walks in America?”
Before he could answer Greta abruptly pulled him in the opposite direction, as if something suddenly occurred to her. In short order they came to a narrow little apartment flat.
“What’s this?” he asked, looking up at the plain, even dingy and moderately kept building. She turned to him, her face painted with excitement.
“Oh we must absolutely stop, for a visit,” she said. “You will meet my good friend Josef.”
Even describing the building as modest was stretching credibility. Calling it plain seemed like an affront to all things plain and dull. The building, at Number Thirty-six Amelienstrasse, was a rundown shabby gray brick with simple rectangular windows, thick with soot and grime. The wooden door had greyed with age and weather. Near the top of the door someone had crudely and hastily scratched a Jewish Star of David. The letters “J” and “U’ were scrawled below, where it appeared the would-be artist had been interrupted from his masterpiece. Greta touched the door just below the graffiti and felt the need to apologize on behalf of her city.
“Primitives,” was all she said.
Darby followed Greta through the heavy wooden door. There was a small musty foyer that led to a narrow and well-worn set of wooden steps bleached by years of use. The air reminded Darby of his grandparent’s storm cellar at their little farmhouse in rural Iowa. Greta lifted the front of her skirt to climb the steps. The sound of her wood heeled shoes resounded loudly.
“He is just on the fourth floor,” she said.
“Please tell me he’s going to be home when we get there,” Darby was already dreading the thought of climbing more stairs, especially if they discovered that it was all for not.
“He works all the time.”
She took the stairs more easily than Darby. She was used to walking up and down flights of stairs as a matter of course. Darby was quickly longing for an elevator.
“God, I hope,” he muttered under his breath.
Darby stopped to rest on the third floor. His thighs burned and he fought to catch his breath. Seeing him, Greta frowned.
“Are you really in such terrible shape?”
“I’m a college professor. I’m not use to this.”
“Such a young man,” she teased, “already with one foot in the grave.”
Darby pushed himself forward, meeting her at the bottom of the stairs. “Exactly where is that grave? I’ll gladly throw the other foot and the rest of me in!”
Greta could only shake her head as Darby grudgingly climbed the last several steps. She was still facing him when, to Darby’s great relief, he noticed the passing of an errant shadow in a gap at the bottom of the door.
Greta turned and politely rapped the end of her parasol against the door. A moment later it opened revealing a tall slender dark haired and stunningly handsome man with a long tapered mustache. Josef Block’s eyes were a haunting shade of blue, unlike anything Darby had ever seen before. He found them intense and almost damaged, lingering with him even after Herr Block had looked away. More than that, those eyes seemed a sort of funnel to the world, taking in a broad spectrum, from the mundane to the emotional, and cataloguing every subtlety and detail in between. Quickly recognizing that Darby was entirely out of his element, Block returned a reassuring and gentle smile.
As for attire, if remaining inconspicuous and inoffensive was the style of the day, Josef Block carried that mandate to the extreme in exquisitely perfect banality. He wore simple brown-wool trousers held up by black suspenders which stretched over a broad white shirt with great puffy French sleeves. The shirt was hopelessly stained with splotches paint and splatters of ink. Draped and neatly folded over the back of a chair was a clean gray smock.
“Greta! Wunderbar zu sehen sie!” wonderful to see you, he exclaimed. Block threw his arms out wide and brought them together at her hand, which he lifted to kiss in gentlemanly fashion.
“Und dir also, Herr Block,” Greta said with a curtsey.
“Block? Josef Block?” Darby said, surprised. He unwittingly used the hard “J” sound.
“Forgive me, do you speak English?”
“I can translate,” Greta offered.
“It’s okay, I speak a little,” Block replied.
“Forgive my terrible German, but I was a fan of your work when I was in university some years ago.”
“They know if me and America?” Block replied.
Darby suddenly realized that much if not most of what he knew of Joseph Block still had not happened yet. They were roughly the same age as well, so “years ago,” would have had Herr Block famous even before starting school. Darby, of course, knew well the fate which would befall Josef Block after the Nazis came to power, but that was still almost thirty years away. For Darby that made the optimistic and smiling young man before him all the more tragic.