“You have sinned against God on two counts. You have lain with a man who is a Jew,” Peter’s father growled out angrily.
Even as he spoke he strained to keep his voice low and unobtrusive.
A tall blond man sat stiffly in his red velvet wingback chair. The words stung as if he had been struck across the face, a deep flush rising on his handsome face. His pale blue eyes darted nervously about the richly decorated drawing room. He tried to avert his eyes to anything else but the two pieces of coal smoldering angrily into his face. A large fire crackled from a gleaming ebony fireplace, its warmth betrayed by the suddenly icy atmosphere of the room.
“For 32 years I have indulged you. Sent you to the finest schools. Raised you as a son of Germany. Loved you, as only a father can,” his father’s voice began to rise again. “But this, this…” he spat as his voice trailed off.
Peter lifted his eyes to his father’s face which softened slightly as their eyes locked.
“Vati,” he said slowly, “you know what I am, what I have always been.” His eyes were pleading now. He didn’t dare speak of his love at the moment; his father seemed too dangerous, too unpredictable.
His father let out a deep sigh. “I have known since you were a young boy, Peter. But I warned you that you must never, never sin against God. Do you know what I have risked for you? Do you hear the whispers at work? Do you know the bitterness and hostility I endure?”
Peter’s father sat back resolutely in his own chair, his face suddenly hard again. “I am warning you, Peter. End this. End this now. Or I will be forced to.”
… 6 months later …
Peter sat in his living room as Fauré’s “After a Dream” scratched along on the gramophone, the ethereal notes lifting to the ornamental ceiling and floating up, up through the bedroom above. Floor to ceiling bookcases enclosed an elegant white fireplace. The mid-afternoon sun seeped through the cracks in the rich green velvet curtains. Peter’s cushioned armchair faced the fire, an open book lying uselessly in his lap as he gazed broodingly into the flames, his expression betraying the atmosphere of a blissfully warm and carefree home.
He recalled the conversation he had with his father six months ago. It was the last time they had spoken, but Peter hadn’t gone a single day without brooding over the conversation, replaying it over and over again in his head.
“And yet,” Peter thought, “and yet nothing has happened.”
He was well aware of what was going on in his homeland. All throughout Germany the Jews were losing their businesses, their homes, and even their lives. Executions on trumped up charges almost seemed to be a respite from the cruel prisons and hopeless labor camps. Night after night he would lie awake hanging onto each breath from the man lying beside him. Countless times raw emotion boiled up inside of him as he thought, “he is only free because of what I can give to the state!”
But how long would that last? Was any Jew worth the blemish on the “perfect society”? Peter resented the fact that Max had refused to attempt to leave the country, and by this point there was no hope of escape. The borders were tightly sealed, passports were restricted, and ports were closed. The Sicherheitspolizei were ever present and all knowing.
“I will never leave as long as my family remains behind,” Max had firmly asserted. “I will never leave your side.”
The Nazi party was about as likely to let Peter emigrate as they were to allow Max to live in peace. He had graduated with top honors from his military class. His sharp mind had already earned him many merits and awards. His tactical strategies for “self-defense” through offensive maneuvers had earned him a high ranking position in a division drawing up plans for a blitzkrieg. He excelled as an engineer and had spent significant time designing ultra-fast fighting machines. In fact, his homosexuality wasn’t entirely a secret. A few suspicious colleagues whispered about him whenever his back was turned. Peter knew if it weren’t for his exceptional talents that Max would have been removed long ago, and his own freedom and security would not have even been called into question, he would be in prison as well.
And so when the letter opening clinked twice, Peter’s bubble of uncertainty and doubt burst into doom. He started so quickly that his book fell to the floor into the lush carpet with a dull thud. Seconds ticked by and Peter decided that it had simply been the sound of Max cooking their Sunday dinner from the adjacent kitchen. But there was no mistaking it the second time, and to remove all doubt a small notecard fell through the opening to the floor.
Peter braced himself as he stood up. Suddenly he felt very old and feeble. He slowly made his way to the door, stooped and picked up the card.
“Tonight at midnight.”
His head swam. Peter fell against the door and slumped to the floor. There was a tightening in his chest and he couldn’t breathe. His temples pulsed as he nearly blacked out. He looked down at the card once more to be sure. Already his tears were smudging the ink.
“Peter?” Max’s head peeked quizzically out from behind the kitchen door.
Max was equally handsome to Peter, but where Peter was the epitome of the ideal German, Max was more lightly built with curly dark hair and rich brown eyes. And where Peter had already developed a few creases from worry, Max, in his early twenties, radiated youth and charisma.
When he saw Peter slumped against the door he quickly pulled his apron off over his head and rushed towards him.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry… I’m sorry,” Peter choked out, meeting Max halfway, still on his knees. He gripped his legs tightly and sobbed.
Max, still unsure of what was happening, stroked Peter’s head. “What is it, darling? What’s happened?”
With the question Peter broke into a fresh stream of sobs. There was nothing he could do. Max had been condemned. He handed the card to Max. No words needed to be said. Peter looked up at Max who was furiously blinking back tears. What can be said when the one you love is about to be torn from you?
Max gently broke free from Peter’s grasp and walked slowly back to the kitchen. Peter remained on the floor staring motionless at the door. No thoughts went through his head, no emotions were felt. He felt completely and utterly empty.
At 6 pm Max had the table set for two, as though it were just any other Sunday dinner.
Max’s creation was a sight to behold. There was a beautifully prepared sauerbraten with kartoffelpuffer, red cabbage, and spätzle to accompany it. The smells of a fresh apfelstrudel wafted into the beautiful dining room. But for all the sights, smells and tastes, the room was devoid of life. Peter tried several times unsuccessfully to choke down a few bites of food. For some reason the image of the Last Supper played out in his head repeatedly. Max simply pushed the food around on his plate, unable to make eye contact with Peter.
Peter’s head jerked up at the clatter of Max’s fork crashing loudly onto his china dinner plate. Max had purposefully dropped his fork to draw Peter’s attention. Their eyes locked onto each other, and Max said firmly, “I love you. If this is the end then let us be happy together.”
Then, with great intention, he picked up his fork and began to eat with resolve. If tonight was his last night then he would live every last moment he could. Every bite of food seemed to take on new flavors and sensations. It was as if he were tasting food for the first time.
“Play us some music?” he suggested.
Peter struggled for a moment by the gramophone deciding what would be appropriate. A slightly melancholic piece by Mahler began to play, every note so elegant, so beautiful, simply hanging in the air. No other composer could capture the human experience of angst in the violin quite like Mahler, his notes, quite simply, were human. Up until this point Max had remained remarkably calm for a man who knew his fate and knew it all too soon. But he appeared in the doorway after a few moments with tears streaming down his cheeks. Peter rushed towards him and they held each other for a long time, slowly rocking back and forth. No words were spoken. No words were necessary.
Minutes passed by unnoticed. Peter took Max’s hand and led him to the bedroom. Neither had dared look at a clock all night. Why would you waste a single moment wishing for more? Simply live in the moment. And that is what they did. Peter and Max lay in their bed, wrapped in each other’s arms whispering sweet stories about their time together, every so often stopping to kiss between memories of happiness and joy. The warmth and love had a calming effect. As though by some great miracle, they drifted off to sleep in each other’s arms.
Minutes before the clock chimed midnight Peter was woken from his slumber by the sound of a barking dog. For the second time that day he felt short of breath as his heart pounded in his chest. The echo of marching boots on the cobblestone street woke Max suddenly too, a look of terror spread across his ashen face. Peter clutched him tightly as a whimper escaped through his lips.
The thudding sound of the boots drew nearer and nearer. Every ringing step drew them closer to their fate.
Peter began to panic. “Get up! Run, Max, run!” he urged.
Max shook his head as tears began to streak down his face. “There’s no place to run to.”
“Please, please!” begged Peter, “we’ll hide you!” But in his heart he knew what Max said was true. There was no place to run or hide. There would be no escape.
The thumping of boots rang loudly through the entry hall. They were at the door, and every sound caused Peter and Max to shrivel together in fear, the noise reverberating up and down their spines.
“Sicherheitspolizei! Mach die Tür auf!” barked a voice. “Security Police! Open the door!”
In less than 30 seconds the police had forced their way into the house. Immediately the sounds of objects being smashed and thrown reached their ears, and Peter suddenly feared for the one picture they had together as a couple.
There was a rush of boots up the stairs. Every thud was like a kick to the gut. And then several tall, dark figures were silhouetted in the doorway. The figures paused for only a moment before crossing the room. Peter and Max clung to each other desperately as Peter began to scream. Strong arms pried them apart, and a gloved hand covered Peter’s mouth and nose to silence him. Max let out a yell of terror, cut short by a vicious strike to the head from one of the gloved hands holding a club. Stunned by the blow, his head slumped forward, and they were broken apart.
As two policemen dragged Max’s limp body out of the room towards the stairs, Peter finally managed to break free from his assailants. Max’s eyes fixed on him from the top of the stairs. There was no fight left in them, just a deep and utter sadness. Peter scrambled across the bed and rushed towards the door. But no sooner had his feet touched the floor than he caught his last glimpse of Max as he disappeared down the stairs. From the corner of his eye he saw the butt of a gun aiming for his head, and then there was nothing but darkness.
Peter didn’t know how long he had lain there on the bedroom floor. The physical pain prevented him from moving much, but it paled in comparison to his anguish. Finally, on the second morning after the raid he struggled down the stairs. His furniture, his art, his gramophone … his life … lay ruined, scattered across the room. His throat felt dry and his lips were cracked. A sharp knifelike pain stabbed through his skull. Typically the Sicherheitspolizei’s raids on Jewish homes were published in the paper, along with their “offenses.” Peter saw the paper had been delivered through the letter opening. He might at least find out where Max was being held.
With great effort he delicately settled himself on the floor next to the paper and unfolded it. There on the front page was the photograph of five bodies hanging from the gallows. Beneath were published their names. Peter’s body began to convulse uncontrollably as he read the name: Maximillian Cyfer. His face was unmistakable even in the grainy black and white photograph. A deep, visceral moan escaped Peter’s lips, like an animal mother who had lost her cubs. Great heaving sobs tore through Peter’s chest, and every tear that fell contained a different memory of his beloved. If someone were watching from above they would have seen a man ruined, crumpled on the floor in agony.
… 50 years later …
A frail and wrinkled Peter sat in a beat-up armchair facing a small fireplace. The room was small and dark, illuminated only by the glow from the hearth. He stared broodingly into the fire, wrapped in a moth eaten blanket. His mind drifted back in time, as it always did, to the memories, to all the warmth of his days with Max. A soft knock interrupted his thoughts. He had lived as a virtual recluse for the last 50 years and was unaccustomed to having visitors, much less a random knock on the door. He didn’t particularly care to know who had knocked; he’d rather drift quietly back into the comfort of his memories. Tonight especially. On the 50th anniversary of Peter’s death.
But on occasion our minds overcome our complacency and force us to act. That little voice that urges us to “go” or to “move” can overpower the most stubborn of people. Heaving a soul weary sigh, without much urgency he shuffled towards the door of his small apartment. He paused, hand on the door, as if weighing in his head all the possible excuses to ignore it. Finally he turned the knob and cracked the door. From the slit in the door he saw the retreating figure of a woman. Perhaps she had given up on his tardiness to answer. However, the squeak from the unoiled hinges as he peered out the door caused her to turn around abruptly. Peter looked into the face of a woman in her early 60s. The dark eyes were unmistakable.
“Peter?” she asked hesitantly, “Peter Braun?”
Her eyes searched his face as his examined the deep lines that crossed hers. Here was a woman who had known troubles beyond imagination, and yet she stood with strength and a quiet air of determination.
“Peter Braun?” she asked again.
Peter didn’t allow himself as much as a flinch of recognition. Why was she here? What could she want? But his hesitation gave him away.
“My name is Tikvah Cyfer. I am the sister of Maximillian Cyfer. I was wondering if I might speak to you?”
Peter started to retreat from the cracked door.
“Please!” she cried, this time with a note of desperation. “I don’t wish to upset you. I just need to know.”
Peter thought for a moment longer; he remembered what it was like when he too needed to know, some 50 years ago, and with a sigh opened the door fully and moved aside to let her through.
“Thank you.” She said, and touched his arm gently as she passed. “Thank you.”
Peter paused for a moment struggling with what to say. “Would you like some tea?” he finally managed.
“That would be most kind of you,” she said. “It’s bitterly cold out there.”
Tikvah followed him into the adjacent kitchen. It was compact like the rest of the apartment and a bit shabby.
“Can I take your coat?” Peter asked, turning from the small gas burner.
“Thank you!” Tikvah beamed back.
As she pulled her coat off, the sleeve of her sweater pushed back revealing her serial number. Peter stared at it for a moment in horror. Tikvah met his gaze and smiled ruefully while her fingers absentmindedly caressed the tattoo.
“The physical pain was a long time ago,” she said, “but sometimes looking at the mark causes me more hurt than all my time in the camp.”
“Why are you here?” Peter blurted out exasperated. “Why do you want to make me relive this?”
Tikvah smiled patiently at him, “It’s not my intention for any of us to feel any more pain. I’m just desperate to know what happened to my brother. Please, will you tell me? I promise I will go after you are finished and leave you in peace. I’ll never bother you again, I just need to know.”
Peter let out a deep sigh but nodded his head slowly; he really couldn’t blame her. “Very well.”
They made their way to the living room. Tikvah moved towards the fire and peered at the mantelpiece closely, then gently removed the dusty and faded photo of Maximillian. Peter watched from behind as her back heaved a few times. She turned to him slowly, her eyes bright with tears in contrast to the dimly lit room.
“After all this time?” she asked with wonder in her voice.
“After all this time,” Peter repeated firmly.
“I had almost forgotten what he looked like. The Nazis destroyed every memory of him.” she said.
“Oh, Max,” she crooned as her fingertips lovingly caressed his face.
Even with tears in her eyes she beamed at Peter again. “I never hoped you might still have a picture of my brother. And so handsome,” she continued, “just as I remember him.”
In that moment it dawned on Peter that Tikvah was the greatest gift he could have hoped to receive that night — that night of all nights.
He pulled a chair up next to his, and they sat by the fire for several hours talking about their experiences. Peter explained that after Max was executed, his father had been anxious to get Peter out of the country. There would be no further tolerance for homosexuals, no matter what talents they might have to offer to the party. Peter accepted his help, his hatred for his home country and the party that ruled it was so great he would do anything to be as far removed as possible from the regime that killed his beloved Max. After his escape from Germany he cut himself off from his family and everyone he used to know. No one was blameless to him. After drifting through Europe, he ended up in New York and managed to gain a job in a manufacturing plant. Later, he would teach mathematics at a state university. But in all his time, never, never had he loved again. Max was his one true love. His heart ached for him daily; only his daydreams of a spiritual reunion allowed him to slog on day after day.
Tikvah didn’t go into details about the horrors of the labor camp, much to Peter’s relief. He knew what those places were and he hated his country for what they had done. No one needed to explain to him what had gone on. After the war Tikvah finished high school and then went on to university, but mid-way through her training to be a nurse, she dropped out of school. She felt she would have a greater impact bringing to justice the people responsible for so many lives lost and torn apart. She joined a group dedicated to tracking Nazi war criminals, and with the new skills she acquired, later started an organization to help surviving victims of the Holocaust piece together what had happened to their families.
But in all of her travels and in all the hours and hours of searching, she had never found the answer to what happened to her brother. She explained to Peter that Maximillian too had been estranged from his family just before his death when he revealed to them that he was living with a German man. Shortly after, the family was imprisoned and never had the opportunity to see the newspaper story of Max’s trial and death. As a young girl, she had known that Max was gay, and that hadn’t bothered her. But it wasn’t until she had received an anonymous letter about 20 years ago, that she discovered who Peter was and what he meant to her brother. The letter was sent to her organization without any sender information. Handwritten, it explained that Peter had been betrayed by one of his own family members. The author of the letter claimed a life of misery and regret, and begged Tikvah to find out for herself what had become of the man who loved her brother.
So here she was; it had taken her 20 years to find the right Pater Braun. Granted, she had never stopped to search fulltime, it would have been too difficult to focus only on Max’s story and she feared it would have consumed her if she did.
As Tikvah recounted stories of high ranking Nazi officials whom she had helped to track down and prosecute, Peter’s eyes grew heavy in the warmth of the fire. Max’s photo had been returned to the mantle, and so there the three of them sat. His sister’s unexpected knock at the door had finally brought together the people Max had loved. Peter smiled wistfully as Tikvah’s voice faded away. She couldn’t have known it, but she had brought Peter the greatest gift he could have hoped for. It had always been his greatest fear to die alone, but here he sat, in his own chair, wrapped in a wonderfully comforting connection to Max.
It was sometime later before Tikvah realized that Peter was no longer conscious. Before she called for an ambulance she placed the photo of Max in Peter’s arms and smiled. It was a love more perfect than any she could have imagined. And she was grateful, contented now, to know that her brother had been so cherished.
Despite his unresponsive body, Peter’s consciousness never really ceased. In those last few moments as Tikvah’s voice began to fade and the room began to dim, he started a new journey. It was almost as if he were being pulled gently through a dark tunnel, and even as the room faded away on one end, light appeared at the other. Turning to focus, he saw the light at the end of the tunnel drawing nearer and nearer. It was almost as if he had just come out of a long tunnel slide when he landed softly onto a beach.
All around him there was soft light and a sky painted with pink, purple and orange. The sand was nearly as white as table sugar, and gentle blue waves rolled endlessly onto shore, their rhythmic sound mesmerizing. Above him were the soft calls of seabirds mixed with song; it seemed as though the wind was carrying some sort of chorus of human voices. No place on earth could emulate such peace and contentment. He stretched out his hands, then looked down at his feet. They seemed to have lost 50 years of age in just a moment. Peter looked around at this wondrous place and smiled.
“Peter?” a voice called.
As if in slow motion Peter turned around, a huge smile already breaking across his face. He knew that voice. There before him stood Max. He looked every bit like the Max Peter had last seen 50 years ago, but even more radiant, glowing as if he were giving of light. They embraced at once and held each other a long time.
“Were you waiting for me this whole time?” asked Peter.
“Of course!” Max responded. “But it really wasn’t that long. And wait until I show you our house!” he added excitedly.
“We have a house? Here?” Peter asked slowly.
“There are many houses here.” Max answered smiling. “Come on, I’ll show you ours!”
Max and Peter walked down the beach hand in hand, all memory of their time apart forgotten. The only thing that mattered now was that they were together again.
KIENAN MICK is a resident of the beautiful, lake filled Twin Cities. He has a degree in Economics from the University of Minnesota, and an MS in Applied Economics from the University of North Dakota. In his spare time, he enjoys amateur photography, nature hikes, and bird watching. His interests lie in “alternative” economic systems where the public, unions, and co-ops take a greater stake in our economy.