Something was definitely afoot. Most of the servants, including Nanny, had been given the evening off. Just Ursula, the maid, and Marta, our cook, remained on duty. I couldn’t remember when that had ever happened. That’s why I crept down from the nursery, leaving Peter and Ellen doing their homework. I planned to use my spy skills to find out what was going on.
Mama didn’t see me. I hid in the shadows on the landing. But I had a clear view of her through the bannister. I looked through the binoculars Aunt Charlotte had helped me make from two empty toilet paper rolls. Mama stood in the drawing room, smoking a cigarette. As always, she looked elegant. Her curly chestnut hair was swept back from her face and she wore a black fitted dress with a red belt and matching high heel shoes. But even from a distance, I could see she was agitated. She paced back and forth across the Turkish carpet. And every few minutes she looked at her wrist watch, the gold one Father had made her for their first wedding anniversary.
The doorbell rang. It was so loud, I almost jumped. I shrank back deeper into the dark and watched Ursula cross the front hall, her shoes clicking on the shiny parquet floor. Ursula was new. She always did as Mama asked, but her attitude was faintly superior. Almost as if she was better than Mama.
As she opened the front door cool air rushed in. It had that sharp, fresh smell that promised rain.
“Good evening, Fräulein Charlotte.” She greeted my aunt pleasantly enough, then self-consciously patted her thin blonde hair which was tidily braided in coils and pinned securely to her scalp.
Aunt Charlotte! Mama hadn’t mentioned she was coming. Maybe we could play hide and seek after she and Mama visited. Like we’d done on Saturday. I adored my aunt. We all did. Mama called her a maverick. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, but she didn’t particularly care what other people thought of her. And, she was the only woman I knew who regularly wore trousers. Tonight she must have come directly from work though, because she had on a severe grey suit. She looked serious.
“Good evening, Ursula.” Aunt Charlotte had a throaty voice that commanded attention.
Ursula stood a bit straighter. “Frau Avigdor has been waiting for you.”
At the sound of the doorbell Mama had put out her cigarette and come to the drawing room doorway. She hugged Aunt Charlotte and kissed her on both cheeks.
She turned to Ursula. “Thank you. You may have the rest of the evening off, and tell Cook she can go too, as soon as she’s laid out dinner.”
“Very good, Madame. I’ll be back at 11.00.”
Ursula turned, smiled slyly, and disappeared with Aunt Charlotte’s coat and hat. Mama and my aunt walked arm in arm into the drawing room. Mama slid the door firmly closed behind them.
Now what? I wouldn’t be able to hear what they were saying from where I was hiding. But with the servants out, Father still at work and Peter and Ellen safely on the third floor, I decided to risk eavesdropping. I crept down the stairs, careful to avoid the few creaky spots, and crouched down silently, my ear pressed against the door.
I was in luck. They talked quietly, but by concentrating hard, I could just make out their words.
“Else, I’ve had a long day and I’m tired. What’s so important you couldn’t tell me over the telephone?”
“We’re leaving tonight, Lotte. Rifat says we can’t wait any longer.”
My heart started to pound. I hoped Mama and Aunt Charlotte wouldn’t hear it.
“Tonight! Do the children know?”
“No, we didn’t want them to say anything to their friends. Once Rifat gets home, we’ll have dinner and tell them. We’ll pack up a few things and be gone before the servants get back.” Mama paused. “Lotte, for the last time, will you come with us?”
Aunt Charlotte sighed. “We’ve been through this, Else. I can’t leave Berlin now. My work is too important. Even if I could, where would I get a job? Where would I live?”
“You know you can stay with our friends until you find something. It isn’t safe here anymore, Lotte. We’re already lost our citizenship and Rifat thinks it won’t be long before we lose the house and everything in it. And for you, it’s even more dangerous.”
I frowned. What was so dangerous about working as a secretary in an automobile factory?
“Why tonight, Else?”
Silence. Then Mama, her voice lowered, said, “Yesterday, Peter had a new teacher, a Herr Vogel. He wore a Nazi Party uniform. He made Peter’s friend—you know him, Miriam Hirsch’s son Solly—stand at the front of the room while he pointed out how he was ‘different’ because he was Jewish.”
My aunt gasped.
“How long before that happens to Peter? Or Ellen? Or little Heinz?” I heard the catch in Mama’s voice. “And now that Peter is ten it would draw attention if he didn’t join the Deutsches Jungvolk. We can’t stay in Germany.” What did Mama mean? Peter couldn’t wait to be part of the German Youth and go hiking and camping with the older boys.
Mama paused and when she spoke again it was in her most persuasive voice. “Berlin has changed, Lotte. You know this. Nazi soldiers strutting in the streets. Hitler Youth swearing allegiance to that man. More restrictions for Jews every week.”
Silence as my aunt absorbed this.
“But your friends, Else, they’re taking in the five of you already,” said Aunt Charlotte slowly. “They won’t want a sixth. Don’t worry. I’ll be all right here until you’re settled in your own home. Then, I promise, I’ll join you.”
“You must, Lotte. Your life depends on it. I can’t live without you and neither can the children. You know how they treasure you.”
At that, both Mama and my aunt choked back sobs. The grandfather clock struck just as a motor car turned into the drive. Father was home! I scurried back up the stairs to the third floor, my mind in a whirl.