By Rhys Bowen
It was fate that brought Hofmeister and me together during the summer of '38. Fate, or in my case, luck. It was my final semester at the institute and funds were running low. My grandmother had died, her life savings already rendered worthless by inflation, and with her my only means of financial support.
Fortunately I only needed this semester to complete my diploma in engineering. I had just enough money to make it to July—with appropriate cost cutting measures. No more eating in the mensa or restaurants, for one thing. No more drinking in the little weinstube around the corner and finally the realization that I would have to share a room in the student residence hall.
I had never shared a room before and the idea was repugnant to me. Having been raised an only child by my grandmother I was unused to the company of other males. Their behavior at the institute always seemed to me a little too juvenile and boisterous after the isolation of my youth. I saw no need to participate in back slapping and horse play. In any case, I had grown to prefer my own company and a good book.
Thus I entered that room in the Studentenheim on the twenty-ninth of April with much apprehension. What if he stank, or sang loudly in the bath, or smoked cigars or left wet towels and dirty garments strewn on the floor? What if he tried to sneak in women at all hours? So I was pleasantly surprised to find Hofmeister engaged in unpacking a modest suitcase and placing pairs of socks neatly in a top drawer.
"I've taken the bed by the window," he said, looking up as I came in. "Unless, of course, you'd prefer it ?"
"No, take it by all means. I sleep better away from any form of light."
He came toward me, hand outstretched. "You must be Schwarzkopf. I'm Hofmeister."
We shook hands and clicked heels with the little bow that was customary even among fellow students. He didn't tell me his first name and I didn't suggest that he call me Jakob. I liked his air of aloofness and knew instantly that I should feel comfortable sharing a room with him.
It turned out that we had a lot in common. We were both final semester candidates for the diploma, specializing in the relatively new branch of aeronautical engineering. We were both somewhat quiet and withdrawn, orphans with no close family ties—he having been raised by an aunt who had died the previous year. And, most remarkably, we looked alike too. The other residents started calling us the Twins. Since we were not very social and kept to ourselves we gained the reputation of being snooty and standoffish. There were also hints that we were more than friends, for which there was no foundation, as neither Hofmeister or I had inclinations in that direction.
We were both tall, slightly built, blond with angular features and the high cheek bones of the Slav. Perfect Aryan specimens, in fact. I often thanked my lucky stars that I had taken after my beautiful actress mother, rather than my dark and brooding playwright father. In fact, if she hadn't been stupid enough to marry him and thus give me a Jewish last name, then all would have been well. Especially since he had shot himself within a year of my birth. She, always fragile, had only outlived him by another two years and I had been raised as a good Lutheran, in the elegant town of Ludwigsburg by my maternal grandmother.
So I had passed through life pretty much unscathed and unaffected, avoiding embarrassing street attacks, beard singeings and rock throwings that befell more obviously identifiable Jews. I had come to believe I was immune when the director of studies summoned me to his office one day in May.
"You will take your final exams in July, Schwarzkopf. Is that correct?"
"Yes, Herr Direktor."
He sighed. "I am glad for you, for I have the unpleasant task of informing all my students of Jewish ancestry that they will not be welcomed back to the institute for the winter semester."
"Then I am indeed fortunate, Herr Direktor."
He looked at me for a long minute. "You are a gifted student, Schwarzkopf. You have maintained excelled grades throughout your time here. What will you do when you leave us?"
"I expect to be hired by one of the big aircraft companies. That is, after all, my sphere of expertise."
Another awkward pause.
"You haven't considered emigrating to, say, South America or the United States, where your qualifications would stand you in good stead?"
"I have no wish to emigrate, Herr Direktor. Any company in Germany would be foolish not to hire me when they see what I have to offer." I brushed a wayward lock of blond hair from my face. "Besides, in my case, I do not see that race will be a factor."
He sighed again. "I hope you are right. I wish you every success, Schwarzkopf."
When I recounted this conversation to Hofmeister, I was surprised with the vehemence with which he took the director's point of view. "I think you should seriously consider the Direktor's suggestion, Schwarzkopf—get out while there is still time, my dear fellow."
"But where would I go? I speak no Spanish and my English is also poor. Besides, I have no love for the American lifestyle. Too much noise and lack of moral fiber."
"It's a pity," Hofmeister said jokingly. ‘You'd have made an excellent Nazi."
"They invited me to join the Hitler Youth until they found out about my background, so fortunately I was spared countless sing-songs and camping trips." I smiled. "What about you? I'm sure you'll make a wonderful Nazi yourself. Have they tried to recruit you?"
"Of course," he said. "Many times. But I'm not interested in politics. I just want to be left alone to conduct my research in peace. I'd like to be the first to develop a commercial jet engine."
"That would be a magnificent accomplishment," I said. "Jet propulsion also fascinates me. Wouldn't it be splendid if we were both hired by the same aircraft company and we could work on our research, side by side?"
"I've already applied to Dornier and Messerchmidt," Hofmeister said.
"So have I."
"Heard anything yet?"
I shook my head.
"Neither have I, but it's early days. They may want to wait for the results of our final exams." He got up and paced around the room. "I worry about your future, Schwarzkopf. You're a good fellow, but being a good fellow won't count when the Nazis finally crack down. That piece of paper with your racial background—that is all that counts, I'm afraid."
"Surely not." I gave a half embarrassed laugh. "My mother was a popular performer in her time and my father was not just any Jew. His plays are performed throughout the world."
As Hofmeister said nothing, I continued. "Besides, I'm hoping to make myself indispensable to a major aircraft company. They wouldn't be stupid enough to hand over one of their most gifted research engineers. Not with a war in Europe brewing."
"The Nazis have their spies everywhere, so I'm told," Hofmeister said in a low voice. "Trust no one, Jakob."
I was touched by his concern for my future, but I still felt no real alarm. I would emerge with one of the highest diplomas in Germany. My research had been on aspects of aviation that the Luftwaffe would need to maintain air superiority in the coming war. And I looked like a true Aryan.
The semester drew to a close. We sat our final exams and when the results were published, Hofmeister and I were both at the head of our class—although I outscored him by a few points.
"Now those aircraft companies will come beating down our doors," I said. "I wonder who will hear first, you or I?"
He gave me a crooked smile. "I've already heard from Messerschmidt," he said and looked away. "They've offered me a post at their research facility in Dresden."
"Dresden? That's a long way from anywhere." We were both from the Swabian area of South Germany and Dresden counted as a foreign country in our eyes.
"But a good position, nonetheless. Much of their top secret research is being done there."
"Then I hope they will hurry up with an offer for me too. I think I'll write to them with my results to give them a nudge—and maybe I should ask Herr Direktor to give me a letter of recommendation."
Hofmeister moved away and stared out of the window at the hills that ringed our city of Stuttgart. "You may not want to put him in an embarrassing position, Schwarzkopf. To recommend you would be to compromise himself."
"But I had the highest grade in the class."
"And you are, unfortunately, Jewish."
"Half Jewish," I said. "With parents who were both public figures. Surely these things count?"
"I'll tell you what counts in the eyes of the Nazis," he said. "Aryan. Non-Aryan. That's all. If Jesus were to come back today, he would not be welcome in Germany."
His message was finally beginning to register. "You are saying that no aircraft company will want to hire me, because I am Jewish?"
He nodded. "I fear that may be the case. I hope I'm wrong. They may want to, but dare not. You have a fine brain, Schwarzkopf, and on top of that, you are a good fellow. Without the name and the identity papers, one would never know that you were Jewish."
"Then you really believe that I should get out of Germany?"
"I really do, and as soon as possible, if you take my advice, or it may be too late."
I took his words to heart and made inquiries at various embassies. I found that it wasn't going to be easy. No country was welcoming Jews with open arms, especially penniless Jews like myself. And war was looming. The price of transatlantic tickets had doubled and tripled for those with a Jewish last name. Nevertheless, I sent off letters to aircraft companies in Britain and the United States and waited hopefully for their replies..
The semester ended. Those students who had homes to go to packed up their belongings and went home. Only Hofmeister and I had nowhere to go.
"I head for Dresden in a two weeks," he said. "I want to get myself settled into my room and learn a little about the town before I have to report to work." He put a hand on my shoulder. "I wish you were coming too. I'm sorry things couldn't be different."
"I wish so too. Think of me as I spend my summer laboring in some farmer's fields, trying to earn enough money to pay for my ticket to America."
Uncharacteristically, Hofmeister slapped me on the back. "I tell you what—I've just come up with a splendid idea. We have to be out of here by tomorrow and I have no plans until I go to Dresden. Why don't we take a final trip together to the Alps. We can hike and stay in hostels. It shouldn't cost much."
I smiled. "Why not? One last look at the good South German countryside before we face strange cities and new lives."
So we stored our trunks and took the train south to Munich and then the little post bus into the mountains. Then we set off with rucksacks and no planned route. It was glorious weather—warm but not too hot for walking. We went from village to village, over mountain passes and down again, crossing green alpine meadows full of flowers and cows and goats, eating picnic lunches by tumbling mountain streams and sleeping the night in a peasant's hay barn when there was no hostel nearby. We both became fit and brown.
On the last day we attempted our most ambitious stage. The trail led right over the Laufbacher Eck and down to Oberstdorf. It was a strenuous climb, but well worth it. As we stood, panting, on the high ledge, it was like being on top of the world. Snow covered peaks glistened around us. In the valley far below, a round blue lake reflected the sky. An eagle soared out below our feet.
Hofmeister spread out his arms. "This is the life, eh, Schwarzkopf. To hell with that nonsense down there."
The thought came to me in a blinding flash. I'm sure I had never considered it before, but maybe it had lain dormant for some time. I don't know. Anyway, I hardly had time to consider before I acted. I stepped up behind him and gave him a mighty push. He teetered for a moment, then waved his arms wildly to try to regain his balance before plunging downward without a cry, his body bouncing from rock to rock like a rag doll until, at last, coming to rest at the foot of the cliff.
My heart was beating so fast that I found it hard to breathe. The world swam around me, so that I, too, was in danger of falling. I clung onto an outcropping of rock and stayed there with eyes closed until the vertigo passed. Then, with much difficulty, I climbed down to him. He was, of course, quite dead. Fighting back the nausea, I made myself go through his pockets and rucksack until I had replaced every piece of his identity with my own. Then I ran all the way down to the nearest hamlet to get help.
Everyone was very kind. They assisted me back to the nearest inn and gave me schnaps and warm blankets for shock. They wanted to know about poor Schwarzkopf's next of kin and were relieved to hear that there were none. I spent the night at the inn and then caught the train back to Stuttgart where I retrieved Hofmeister's trunk from storage.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that he had just bought himself a new dark suit, also that he had a little money in his savings account. I used this, and the few days before I reported to Dresden, to visit his home town of Ulm where I acquainted myself with the facts of his childhood—the gymnasium from which he had matriculated, the apartment block where he had lived, the bakery on the corner. I found nobody who remembered him.
Thus reassured, I made my way to the city of Dresden and presented myself at the address where he had apparently already rented a room for himself. The landlady greeted me with deference and hoped that Herr Hofmeister would have an agreeable stay in her city. The room was spacious and well furnished and looked out over the old town. I decided immediately that I should enjoy living here. A letter had already come for me. The landlady pointed to it lying on my dresser.
It requested that Herr Hofmeister should report to the above address as soon as was convenient to meet with Herr Fischer and discuss his assignment. I put on the dark suit, which fitted me perfectly, and reported that very afternoon, anxious to be at work. The building was close to the city center, a faceless block of gray stone, among other similar buildings. There was no name plate on the outside, but I went up the steps and in through the front door. As I stood in the tiled central foyer, looking around at the various doors and staircases and wondering which to choose, a young woman came out and started in surprise at my standing there.
I gave her my name and asked to see Herr Fischer. She ran up the flight of stairs to my left then returned with a smile on her face. Herr Fischer welcomed me to Dresden. He would be delighted to see me, if I would just take a seat for a moment.
There were polished wood benches around the walls. I sat on one of these. After a couple of minutes the front door opened again and a man came in. He was shabbily dressed, mid-forties or maybe even older. He stood, looking around him, before taking a seat on a bench well away from me. He had removed his hat and clutched it in his hands, squeezing it out of shape as he played with it. Every time a door opened or footsteps were heard upstairs, he started nervously. At last he caught my eye.
"Who are you here to see?" he asked.
"You too." He dropped his eyes back to the battered hat in his hands. "I should never have waited. It was Hannah, you know. She was sick. And now it's too late, of course."
I wanted to ask him what he meant, and was phrasing the question in my head when footsteps came down the stairs. A young man this time, with close cropped blond hair and wearing a black shirt and well cut black trousers. "Herr Adler?"
The man sprang to his feet.
"This way. Room 224."
The older man shot me a despairing glance as he followed the black shirt up the stairs.
Now I was really confused. Why was this man so downcast at the thought of meeting with Herr Fischer? Perhaps, I decided, he was no good at his job and about to be fired. There was something disquieting about this place. It was gloomy and cold for a research facility, as faceless inside as it had been out. No pictures on the walls, except for the obligatory portrait of the Fuhrer on one wall. No notice board, no buzz of conversation. Too quiet. I shifted uneasily on the hard bench. Would I enjoy working in these conditions? Or maybe this was just head office and the research facilities were somewhere else all together. Somewhere bright, out in the country. This thought cheered me. Then suddenly there was activity on the floor above. A door opening, running feet, a shout and a single brief despairing cry. The young man in the black shirt came running down the stairs. As he passed me he gave me a grin. It was not a friendly smile but a smile of triumph. I had seen it before when windows had been smashed and beards set on fire. A smile of cruelty.
Then a cold sweat crept over me as I realized where I was. This building had nothing to do with aircraft design. Of course the black shirt had looked strangely familiar. I was in Gestapo headquarters. Hofmeister had done his best to warn me. Their spies are everywhere, he had told me. I had scoffed at this idea, but he knew what he was talking about. He had been one of them. He had been planted at the institute and now he was to be their plant at the aircraft engineering facility.
My mouth had gone dry. I couldn't swallow. Even if Hofmeister had never met Herr Fischer before, it was only a matter of time before I ran into someone he knew, and then it would be all over. I couldn't imagine what they would do to someone who dared to impersonate a Gestapo spy. I looked around desperately, just as the man had done, and actually got to my feet. There was nobody down here. I could make a run for it. By the time they came looking for me I could be across a border… That's when it hit me—I had nowhere to run.
The female receptionist appeared at the top of the stairs. "You can come up now, Herr Hofmeister," she said brightly. "Herr Fischer is ready to receive you."
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