With her blue eyes squinted against the sun, Hilda watched the distant approaching train. An errant cloud scudded across the sky. Her petite aunt, Magdalene stood next to her.
“Now, Hilda, are you sure you want to interview for a job at the Reich Chancellery? Berlin is going to be different from Leipzig.”
“I’ll be fine. I want to work. I have to do my part for Germany,” Hilda replied firmly. She glanced at her aunt with a grin. “Or would you rather I become a Reichbraut?”
“No, I want you to be happy,” Magdalene said exasperated, “If you are to have children, they should be with someone you love, not a stranger. Besides, you are too independent and stubborn to do such a thing. Try to stay out of trouble. I’m not saying don’t be yourself, but try to abide the Reich’s rules.”
“I will try very hard to behave.” Hilda looked down at her spinster aunt. She had the same blue eyes and they stared up at her sternly. A small gold crucifix hung on a chain around her aunt’s neck. She began to whisper, “Make sure you don’t let anyone know that I’m not your mother. If they look closely enough at those papers, they will realize they are fake.”
“I know, you’ve already told me a dozen times.” Hilda peered down the rail again, her aunt continued quietly.
“No one must know she died in the sanatorium.”
“You raised me, you are my mother as far as I’m concerned. Who knows where my father has been and she– she stopped recognizing me years before she died.”
“My brother was never quite the same after the war. He wasn’t capable of being the father you needed, but he was smart enough to leave you with me.”
The train trundled noisily into the station making any talk near impossible. After it had screeched to a halt, Hilda leaned down and kissed her aunt’s cheek. “I love you, Mutti.”
“I love you, Hilda,” her aunt replied, “May God keep you safe.”
Hilda climbed onto the train with her suitcase. She found a seat and gazed out the window. Her aunt clutched her hands to her chest on the platform. Hilda could tell she was on the verge of tears. As the train began to move, Magdalene began to wave. She trotted down the platform a ways, but the train caught speed and the sight of her aunt quickly slipped away. Hilda was now on her way to Berlin to spread her wings.
Hilda’s first stop in Berlin was an address given to her by an acquaintance from the League of German girls. The girl, Petra, had been in the same troop as Hilda. They had grown up together. Hilda had joined the League against her aunt’s wishes, but she wanted desperately to fit in with the other girls.
Hilda and Petra had both completed secretarial courses at the same technical school. They lost touch when Petra had moved to Berlin two years earlier as a typist, but had now left the Chancellery to get married. The happy couple returned to Leipzig to have the ceremony at St. Trinitatis. Petra found Hilda assisting in the church office and suggested that she inquire at the Chancellery to fill her old position. Petra also gave her the address to a boarding house where she had lived.
After arriving at Anhalter station, Hilda attempted to find her way to the Friedrichshain neighborhood to find the boarding house. She found it difficult with the city’s sheer size. It was much more complex than Leipzig and built rather haphazardly. New construction was evident everywhere as Hitler had planned a redesign for the New Germany. Eventually, she found her way to a humble brick house and knocked on the door. It opened and an older woman greeted her.
“Yes, how may I help you?” the old woman squinted at her.
“My name is Hilda Gerwig. I am an old friend of Petra Schwarzfeld. She recommended your boarding house to me. Do you still have an opening?”
“A friend of Petra’s? I don’t believe I have met you before.”
“No, I grew up with Petra in Leipzig. This is my first time in Berlin on my own.”
“I see, come in and sit down. You can set your case just inside the door.” The old woman stood back to allow Hilda inside. “The parlor is to the right. Now I’m sure Petra told you, that I run a ladies only establishment. I don’t allow unchaperoned male guests in the rooms. If you would like to have a gentleman caller, I will be able to chaperone here in the parlor. The bathroom upstairs is shared, but each room has a small kitchenette and is fully furnished. There is also a rota for doing laundry. Does any of this bother you?”
Hilda had sat perched on the edge of a shabby sofa as Frau Kempler covered all her house rules. Hilda shook her head and the old woman immediately spoke again.
“I rent by the week and I will only give two warnings if rent is late before you’re out on the street,” Frau Kempler paused to catch her breath, “Here I am going on and on and I haven’t even evaluated your character. Now, why don’t you tell me about yourself.”
Hilda stuttered as she began, “Well, I am not sure how long I’ll be staying yet. I have an interview this afternoon, but I intend to stay until I hear back from them. I was raised in Leipzig. My mother is an active member at St. Trinitatis and I was assisting in the church office before this opportunity arose. I don’t have many gentleman friends. My upbringing was much too strict to allow for anything, except ladylike behavior.”
Frau Kempler waved for Hilda to stop. “I’ve made up my mind. Let me show you the room.”
The old woman kept talking as she led Hilda up the stairs and unlocked a door. The room overlooked the street. The windows were all fitted with black out curtains. Some overstuffed chairs sat beneath them and were close enough to the bed that you could put your feet up. A square table sat in the middle of the room not far from the door. A tiny stove and a few cupboards hugged the corner. A big armoire was on the opposite wall and a frail desk was hidden behind the door.
“What do you think?”
“It’s exactly what I need,” Hilda replied. She rummaged in her purse for the deposit, which she exchanged for the key.
“Well, Fraulein Gerwig, I’ll let you freshen up for your interview.”
Hilda set her suitcase on the bed and unlatched it. She pulled out a hinged frame and opened it. It held a picture of her parents together on one side and on the other an eleven-year-old Hilda and her aunt sitting on the shore of a lake. She set it carefully on the bedside table and continued to unpack.
Hilda approached the ominous government building. Its red banners fluttered in the wind. The windows were like many gaping eyes. Her heels clacked on the marble and echoed in her head. She desperately needed the job as a typist, but walking into the offices of the government felt like entering a lion’s den. She tried to remind herself that what she had heard were only rumors.
She followed her directions to Hauptmann Schlessler’s office. His secretary was not at her desk and the office door stood open. Hilda straightened her blouse and knocked on the doorframe.
The dark haired and uniformed man looked up from the papers laid across the desk. Hauptmann Schlessler was a fit man nearing his forties. Touches of gray had begun to color his dark hair above his ears and his gray eyes were just beginning to crinkle at the edges. Altogether distinguished and attractive, but Hilda forced this thought from her mind.
“Hauptmann Schlessler, I am Hilda Gerwig. I have an appointment about the open typist position.” She strode forward and offered her hand. Schlessler stood up and shook it. Hilda noticed he held it longer than necessary.
“Do you have your résumé or any recommendations?
“Of course,” she pulled her papers from her purse and handed them to him. He gestured to a small desk by the wall with a typewriter.
“Please sit,” He set down a page of text, “Copy this. I will be timing you.”
He sat back at the desk. “Please,” he encouraged. Hilda pulled off her gloves and fed paper into the machine. She copied the text word for word. It was a rather bland bit of dictation taken by his secretary.
“Finished,” she said. The Hauptmann looked at the clock and gestured for the pages. Hilda handed him the original and the copy. He studied the pages closely.
“You have a very nice recommendation from the church office at St. Trinitatis in Leipzig.” He added.
“Yes, my mother remains an avid member there. She insisted I volunteer after I finished my schooling for some experience,” she responded. Her heart fluttered, she was already lying. Her mother had died in a sanatorium years earlier. Her aunt had a new birth certificate forged claiming Hilda as her own daughter to protect her. The mentally infirm were being sterilized by the state.
Hilda clutched her hands in her lap to steady them. Schlessler looked back at her papers.
“I see you participated with the League of German girls?” he observed.
“Yes, that’s how I was referred to this position. By Petra Schwarzfeld.”
“Yes, she feels strongly that you should replace her according to her letter,” he commented, “And you speak some French? That will be useful as Germany expands.” Hilda could see his point. Germany was on the move again. Everyone was speculating about the German-Russian relations.
“We require all of the people employed in this building to pass a background check. I could get that started this–“ Another officer came into the room, he was laughing with the woman on his arm. The new arrivals stopped in their tracks when they saw the officer at the desk.
“SS Standartenfürher Edelmann!” The man stuttered, “Heil Hitler!” and he saluted the man at the desk.
“Hauptmann Schlessler, you missed your appointment with Fraulein Gerwig, but I discovered she’s a very able typist. It seems I was here doing both your job and mine while you were out enjoying a long lunch.”
“My apologies, Colonel Edelmann, what brings you to my office?” The real Schlessler tried to sound collected.
“I was just looking into a small matter, something about carbon copies of documents from your office found in the possession of the Resistance,” Edelmann was nonchalant, “Would you know anything about that?”
Edelmann interrupted him, “Of course, you can’t even see past the end of your nose, Schlessler.” Edelmann picked up the telephone.
“These are baseless accusations, Colonel!” Schlessler yelled. The secretary cowered behind him. Edelmann focused only on the telephone.
“Yes, this is Colonel Edelmann, please send up my men.” His stony gaze turned back to Schlessler. Hilda tried to shrink on her stool and be as invisible as possible.
“I have all the evidence I need, Schlessler, and the authority to act on it.”
Two SS soldiers pushed into the room behind the couple.
“Take her into custody,” Edelmann ordered. The soldiers took hold of the secretary. She cried out, her eyes wide. She clawed at Schlessler and pleaded. The Hauptmann stared back bewildered.
“My secretary?” he asked, as she was pulled from the room.
“Yes, Schlessler, your infatuation has blinded you. I suggest you follow them and make a statement of your own or she just may pin this all on you.”
Without another word, Schlessler slunk from the room to follow the distant cries of the arrested woman.
“My apologies, Fraulein Gerwig, bad business for you to witness, but now you are excused to enjoy the rest of your day. I’ll have the head of the typing pool, Frau Keller, telephone you in a day or two.”
Hilda fumbled with her purse, shaken by the tension that enveloped the room. She made her way to the door.
“Fraulein, your gloves.”
“My what?” she asked still stunned.
Edelmann picked up her gloves from beside the typewriter and walked over to her. He leaned in unusually close. She could pick up the scent of aftershave and sweet tobacco from his uniform. She went to take her gloves, but he did not let go as she pulled on them. She looked up into his cold eyes.
“I hope we meet again, under better circumstances,” he smiled. It reminded Hilda of the leering wolf in her old fairytale books. He was powerful and Hilda’s mixed emotions frightened her. Her knees weakened under her skirt. Either she was going to melt into his arms or run away in fear.
“Thank you, Herr Colonel,” she stammered. Hilda fled the room with her heart in her throat. She walked as fast as she could without running, down the stairs and out the door. She was absolutely sure that when Frau Keller called, she would turn down the job.
But she didn’t.