For new readers: THE MAN WHO FEEDS THE SWANS is a novel placed on line one chapter every 2 days. To start at the beginning, you need to go back in the posts to Part 1 dated July 3. I had thought of scrapping this, but I see about 20+ folk seem to be reading it, so I'll persevere. However, there are 71 chapters plus an epilogue so you'll need stamina and patience to get to the end, which should be sometime before Christmas!
Markenburg: October 1929.
He who asks is a fool for five minutes.
But he who does not ask remains a fool forever.
Gunther had seen the girl of his desires again. His father had sent him with a load of barrels on the cart to the railway station. It was a cool, fine mid-October morning and birds sang in the trees which were shedding their drying leaves along the road side into town.
After he had attended to the paperwork in the goods office, he was giving the horse some water as a train pulled into the station. Gunther found trains fascinating, always wondering where they were going and where they had been. It seemed remarkable that those steel rails linked the cities of Europe and beyond, and he longed to travel. This train was from Koblenz, bound for Trier. Only four passengers alighted at Markenburg. There were two old ladies, being helped with luggage by a porter, then a stocky man in some kind of military uniform. There was a huge blast of steam and smoke from the locomotive which sent a dense white mist along the platform, and just as Gunther was about to get back onto the cart, emerging like an angel from the clouds, there she was.
She was wearing a straw hat with flowers and a cream cotton two-piece. Her feet, in smart polished brown button-up boots, were dainty and she walked in a dignified manner as her heels clicked on the flagstones. But it was her face, her eyes, her hair. To Gunther she seemed like an oil painting. Her skin was faintly olive in complexion, her eyes brown like chocolate, her dark chestnut hair falling from her hat in thick, natural waves onto her shoulders. Yes, it was the Markenburg girl of his dreams, his fixated desire he had never dared to discuss with his beer-swilling mates lest they broke the magic in their usual crude fashion. Yet who was she? He had to know.
He let her walk away from the station and onto the leaf-strewn road leading into town. Although he wasn’t due to travel in that direction, he decided he’d trot along a few paces behind her. As he drew nearer, he did something very bold, something which was, for Gunther, very brave. He took off his cap and pulled alongside her. His heart beating hard, he took a deep breath.
“Are you going into town?” he asked. She looked up at him, and to his sheer delight, smiled.
“What business is it of yours?”
“Er … none; I thought that I might offer you a ride. Save you walking.”
She walked on and he kept pace on the cart.
“Do you think I’m an invalid or something?” she said, smiling still.
“No, you look very fit,” he replied, realising how cheeky this must have sounded. Then she stopped walking, and he halted the cart.
“Well,” she said, “I’ll accept a ride. Just behave yourself, because I know who you are.” Gunther found this comment slightly disturbing. She clambered up onto the seat alongside him. He slapped the reins and the horse broke into a steady trot. He cast a sidelong glance at her. Whatever her profile, she seemed beautiful from any angle.
“You said you know who I am.”
“Yes. You work at the Reisemann vineyard above the river. That’s a long climb. I bet the poor horse hates it.”
“How do you know I work up there?” he asked.
“Because I know your brother.”
Gunther felt a pang of bitter disappointment. Albert was older than him. More experienced. He’d been popular in Markenburg before he left for Munich. Damn you, Albert, he thought; have you been here already and without realising ruined my dreams about this girl?
“So. You know Albert. How well do you know him?”
She ran her long, elegant fingers through her hair and gave a little laugh.
“He used to come and see me some nights down by the jetty when I fed the swans. He was always asking who I was and if I’d go out with him.”
“And did you?”
“Of course not. And I never told him who I was, but he probably knew anyway and he wanted me to know everything about him. I told him to mind his own business. He probably found out everything he needed to know from his friends. I haven’t seen him for a long time. Has he gone away?” Her answer gave Gunther some comfort.
“Yes. He’s working in a furniture factory in Munich. He writes sometimes, and sends my mother a few marks when he can afford it. He keeps promising to come home for a few days but he doesn’t. Anyway, if you wouldn’t tell him your name, how about telling me?”
She was quiet for a moment.
“Ruth. You must be Gunther?”
It seemed a small triumph that his pushy brother couldn’t get her to reveal her identity yet he had succeeded.
“You’re a lot like Albert. How did your family get so tall and strong?”
“Hard work and clean living.” This made her laugh.
“And what about you?” she asked, “will you be leaving home too?”
“If I get the chance, yes. I want to be a sailor or a railwayman.”
She leaned forward a little and looked him up and down.
“I can see you as a sailor. But not on a locomotive. Anyway, the uniform’s better in the navy.” He smiled, mentally agreeing with her. They had entered the town now and passed under the Kaiser Wilhelm Bridge heading for the main street. She grabbed his arm. The feel of her fingers through his sleeve was thrilling.
“You can drop me off here.” They pulled to a halt. He leapt down from the cart and in a gallant gesture helped her to alight. Her hands felt like warm velvet.
She climbed down, and her hair almost brushed his face. It was like breathing in at the gates of heaven. He climbed back on board. She stood for a moment on the pavement, looking up at him.
“Thank you, Gunther.” She began to walk away.
“Ruth?” he blurted, “er… if you wouldn’t see Albert, would you see me again?” She stopped, turned and smiled sweetly.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said, and walked off into the crowd.
For the next three days it rained, and then a letter came from Albert. He had lost his job in the Munich factory. The economic climate as it was, losing employment was bad news, but Frau Reisemann was still excited at the prospect of her older son’s return home.
“He says he is coming home but only for a week, to collect some things. You must talk to him, Viktor, try and get him to stay home.”
Viktor was hanging his rain-soaked coat up and simply made a dismissive grunting noise.
“Promise me you’ll talk to him –“
Viktor turned and glared at his wife.
“Enough! He’s young. He’s done his bit here – if he wants to go and look for other work, then it’s nothing to do with us. Let him go. You heard what Karl said last week. Unemployment has now gone well beyond three million. Winter’s almost here. We can’t feed another mouth here.” Elena sighed and gazed through the window at the rain.
“Well, I just wish he’d tell us more about what he does down there in Munich. His letters are sketchy, to say the least. He’s a good woodworker, so surely someone else will take him on.”
“He’d be better off emigrating,” said Viktor, “because they need lads like him in America. Whatever he’s doing in Munich, he’ll never get anywhere. He’s wasting his time.”
“Oh,” said Elena, “let’s all be so cheerful, eh? It doesn’t help when Karl comes around with his latest agitations and his gloomy news. But you can’t dampen my spirit. I’m happy, because Albert is coming. He’ll be on the four’o’clock train the day after tomorrow and Gunther can go down to the station to pick him up.”
Later, the rain stopped and there was a brilliant sunset. After dinner, Gunther took his father’s old opera glasses and sitting out on the porch as the sun was going down, he looked through them at the town, trying to imagine if anyone was having a good time down there. He scanned along the river bank and his heart skipped a beat when he saw Ruth. She was on the end of the ferry jetty holding a small wicker basket from which she threw some handfuls of what looked like bread or something edible, which the swans and ducks eagerly gobbled up. Gunther wondered, what with the struggles they’d all had and the state of the economy, what kind of household she came from where they could afford to not only feed themselves, but wild swans and ducks. Yet such questions evaporated as he focused on her lovely form and the graceful swing of her arms. He peered at her until she’d finished and it was almost dark, and then she vanished along the promenade and into the town. I must try to meet her again, he thought. I won’t take no for an answer. She is too beautiful and fascinating to resist.
The following day the Reisemann’s closest neighbour, the farmer’s wife, Gudrun Neumann, called by late in the morning to see Elena. Good hearted though she was, Frau Neumann was a noted old gossip, but whatever snippets of local news she brought were usually worth listening to. Elena poured coffee as the portly, red-faced matron told her tale.
“You wouldn’t believe it, Elena. You know the Burgomeister, Hans Liebling, well, I always thought he was a bit of a killjoy, and as you know he’s always sticking his nose in other people’s business. So, apparently, last night he was out on his terrace just above Frielingstrasse, and had been shouting at some noisy drunks below on the street. He had been leaning on his garden fence when it gave way. As you know, it’s a fifteen foot drop to the street below, and as he fell, the broken branch of an old tree punctured his side and tore a huge wound near his stomach.”
Elena’s jaw dropped as her coffee cup clattered into the saucer.
“Good heavens Gudrun – is he alright?”
“Oh good lord,” continued Gudrun, “You’ve not heard the half of it. There was quite a commotion, and Frau Liebling ran down the steps with her housemaid, Lotte, but they found the Burgomeister lying unconscious in a pool of blood. So straight away they sent Lotte to bring the physician, Doctor Rollmann, but Frau Rollmann told Lotte that the good doctor was away in Trier. There’s that old nurse in town called Hette Oesten, and Frau Liebling then sent for her to come to the Burgomeister, yet she said that the wound was too serious for her to properly deal with, and he needed surgery. He was still bleeding all over the place, and had become very weak, when Hette suddenly surprised everyone when she said ‘Go and get the old Jew – the Rabbi!’”
“The Rabbi?” asked Elena, wide-eyed. Gudrun continued.
“Now, here’s the surprise – not many people in Markenburg know that before he was a Rabbi, Ernst Thielemann was a well-respected surgeon in Berlin. I had read somewhere that lots of Jewish lawyers and doctors often fancy becoming Rabbis later in life. They’re a funny lot, eh? Now, you’d think with the brownshirt boys making a constant fuss about the Jews that the old man wouldn’t have turned out, but he did. Rabbi Thielemann took his medicine case and went with Hette to the poor Burgomeister. When he got there, a small crowd had gathered, and he asked a man in a nearby house for the loan of his handcart. They carefully loaded poor Liebling onto the cart, pushed it back up the steep pathway to the Burgomeister’s house, and over the next two or three hours Thielemann performed an operation, stitched everything up, then sat with Herr Liebling all through the night. The news was apparently, early this morning, that the Burgomeister, although still very ill, will recover, and the Rabbi has agreed to attend him until Dr. Rollmann returns from Trier. I know there’s a lot of bad stuff in the papers about Jews, but it’s a piece of good luck for Herr Liebling that someone remembered who the Rabbi used to be. So, you see, Elena, even Jews come in handy sometimes!”
Throughout this exciting outburst Elena had sat in amazement, frequently putting her hand to her mouth.
“Are you saying that Jews are useless then, Frau Neumann?” asked Gunther. Elena shook her head and looked at her son.
“No, I don’t think she means that, do you?”
Frau Neumann took a sip of coffee and looked first at Gunther and then at Elena.
“Well, they have become a bit of a pest, haven’t they? My Herman says they’re in league with the Americans and the Russian Bolsheviks and they’ve bled our economy dry.”
Elena looked away and paused, thinking carefully before responding.
“And has the Rabbi sent the Burgomeister a bill?”
Gudrun looked surprised.
“Oh – well … I never thought of that. I bet he will – you know what Jews are like.”
“So,” said Elena, “If Dr. Rollmann had been there, he would’ve done it for nothing? Out of the good of his heart? Well, Gudrun, it’s a shame we can’t just accept the fact that the Rabbi was there and prepared to save a fellow human being. And anyway, he’s hardly guilty of – what was it you said – ‘bleeding the economy dry’ – he’s only in the same job as Father Heinzel – just a different religion. At least he doesn’t go around expecting gifts from working people. We don’t have many Jews in Markenburg, but those we do have seem to work hard and keep themselves to themselves. I’ll bet if your Herman had been in the Burgomeister’s place you’d have welcomed the Rabbi with open arms.”
Elena had seen another side to her old neighbour, and she didn’t like it. Gudrun’s expression had changed from one of a hitherto jolly old matron to something much darker as she glanced from Elena to Gunther. She got up and walked to the door, and paused before making her exit.
“You know, Elena, you have some very odd ideas sometimes...”
There was excitement in the Reisemann household on the day of Albert’s return home. Gunther steered the cart into the station yard just before the train arrived. He stepped onto the platform where a few other people were waiting, and was dismayed to see three young SA men lounging on the bench by the waiting room. He knew two of them from school. Walther Ruckerl and Fritz Hausser had always knocked the small kids around in the schoolyard. Yet Gunther recalled how they had always avoided any confrontation with him and his brother. The big Reisemann boys were not worth tangling with, and both were handy with their fists. Seeing these two ignorant oafs in their brown uniforms and swastika armbands, sprawled on that bench made Gunther feel almost angry. Hausser scowled at him.
“See your big brother’s coming home today, then?”
“How did you know that?” asked Gunther.
“He’s been in touch. He’s a big cheese now, you know.”
Gunther was puzzled. Why would Albert have been in contact with these idiots? He had no intention of speaking further with them so walked away to the end of the platform. Soon, the train arrived, and he realised he was in the wrong place, as through the clouds of steam he saw Albert disembarking about four carriages away. Walther and Fritz and their dumb friend got to him before Gunther, but he was stopped in his tracks when he saw how Albert was dressed. He too was wearing an SA uniform, but with black breeches, a black tie and a black cap adorned with a silver death’s head. The only flash of colour was the swastika armband, but even that was edged in black. Although Gunther’s beloved brother, and even allowing for how much he had longed to see him, the image of him now in this uniform made him feel quite nauseous. He was carrying a suitcase in one hand, and under his other arm, a brown paper parcel, which he gave to Hausser. They all made the raised-arm salute and as Hausser and his mates left, Albert spotted Gunther and broke into a broad smile. They ran towards one another, met and hugged. Gunther stood back from Albert and looked him up and down.
“What the hell is this?” he said.
Albert simply grinned.
“Never mind that – have you brought the cart? I don’t fancy the trek up that hill with this case.”
The first five minutes on the cart were silent but for the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves.
“I didn’t know you were friendly with those … those clowns,” said Gunther.
“They may be clowns,” replied Albert, “but we need them. And they need us. Anyway, as Germany’s become nothing but a circus, even clowns have their place. Now they’ve got a purpose in life, an excellent ringmaster and some discipline.”
Gunther was confused, temporarily lost for words. Was this really his big brother or some kind of Bavarian doppelganger?
“What was in the parcel?”
“Party promotional leaflets. Membership’s lagging behind here, so we need to build it up.”
Gunther wanted to ask him other questions, but every time he cast a sideways glance and saw the uniform, it felt as if he was taking a stranger home. What had happened to his brother? He knew this was going to cause ructions when mother and father saw him, and he was right.
They were delighted to see him, but the joy was short-lived and father, looking Albert up and down, began straight away.
“What the hell have you got yourself into now?” he wailed.
Albert took off his cap and loosened his tie.
“I’m working for the fatherland,” he said, then eagerly began drinking the cold apple juice his mother had poured. Viktor sighed.
“My God…the ‘fatherland’? Good heavens, Albert – that’s what I did in the trenches, and look where that got us. What kind of uniform is this? Is it the SA, or are you one of Hitler’s tram drivers?”
Albert smashed his fist on the table and stood up.
“Father! Have some respect for the Führer and for this uniform. I am one of the privileged few – a member of the Schutzstaffel – Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard. Germany is on the path to greatness, and I hoped you’d be proud of me.”
“Well,” said mother, “you do look very smart but your Uncle Karl brought us a copy of Herr Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, and we found it very disturbing.”
“Incoherent, spiteful, and badly written,” added Viktor.
“It might be all those things,” said Albert, “but it contains the truth, and that’s what you liberals can’t face up to.”
Elena sat at the table and placed her head in her hands.
“How did you end up joining this… this rabble?” asked Viktor.
“What’s the point of telling you anything at all? I may as well have stayed in Munich, where at least I’m welcome. I worked hard, did some good work for the Bluthner business, and even got the old man a big order. And what was my reward? The sack. And who’s to blame? Yes, father, you’ll say ‘the recession’ and ‘the economy’. But who created this mess? The Jews. That’s why your son is out of regular work and in this uniform. Don’t you want a better country, or do you want us to live in debt to the Yanks, the Bolsheviks and the Jews for ever and ever?”
Viktor lay his hands palms down on the table and took a deep breath.
“Son … son. Let’s not fight. Dear, oh dear! The Jews. Every fifty years or so when the gentile world makes a complete mess of things, the poor old Jews are wheeled out for the blame. It’s like kicking your cat because the dog messed on the carpet. I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. All that education and now this. We looked forward so much to you coming home. But you could at least have given us some indication in your letters as to what you’ve been up to. If you fancied politics as a career, fine – but the Nazis? Haven’t we had enough uniforms, banners and fighting to last us a lifetime? So come on, you owe it to us to tell us how you’ve arrived at this stage in life. I’m curious to know.”
“It was the communists,” said Albert. “A few months ago they’d called a strike in Munich and had been throwing stones through our workshop windows because we hadn’t come out and joined them. I’d already found some drinking friends in the Hofbrauhaus who were unemployed, but they’d got a new sense of purpose by joining the SA. Remember, it’s a big, well-disciplined organisation, and without it, political rallies would be hopeless. Hitler is a great speaker, and people want to hear him, but these red bullies would do anything to stop him. So when the SA turned up that day and sorted the Bolsheviks out on the street, we were mightily impressed. I enrolled in the SA straight away, and if you’d ever heard the Führer speak, you’d know why. You’re always banging on about the state of this country, father. Well, believe me, Hitler has his finger on the pulse and he’s not all wind and pee like those Weimar Nancies in their frock coats – he’s fearless, a man of action, and mark my words, he’ll turn this country around if we can take power. And the party is growing – 175,000 members now. We were a joke a couple of years back, but no-one is laughing today.”
“But they beat people up,” said mother.
“Everybody beats everyone else up these days!” shouted Albert. “The socialists, the communists, we even have fights with Christian democrats. But unless we use our fists now, then we’ll stay on Europe’s rubbish dump for ever. Don’t you want a better life? Because I know I do…” The argument raged on for an hour until mother pleaded with Albert to change into some civilian clothes before dinner. It was agreed to drop the subject.
After dinner Albert and Gunther sat out on the veranda. It was almost dark and they were gazing at the town down by the river. Viktor wasn’t keen on Gunther smoking but he had a few cigarettes and offered one to Albert.
“No thanks,” he said, “Reichsführer Himmler doesn’t want his new SS men to smoke.” Dismayed, Gunther lit his cigarette. Who the hell was this ‘Reichsführer’ person to come between him and his brother?
“I’ve been chasing a girl,” he said, trying to lighten the mood.
Albert laughed gently and playfully nudged him on the shoulder.
“And about time, too. Time you stopped playing with yourself and got your hands on the real thing. Anyone I know?”
“She’s called Ruth,” he said, with a hint of pride.
Albert was quiet for a few moments.
“Dark haired girl, tall, very pretty?”
“Yes. She said she already knows you.”
“Feeds the swans by the river?”
“Yes. That’s her.”
Albert stood up and faced his brother, placing his hands on Gunther’s shoulders. His expression seemed alien; this wasn’t Albert, but someone else; someone slightly frightening in his dark earnestness.
“You stupid bloody fool. Don’t you know who she is?”
Before Gunther could respond, Albert had begun to violently shake him by the shoulders.
“She’s a damned Jewess! She’s Rabbi Thielemann’s daughter. A slimy Yid! Have you lost your country bumpkin mind, brother?”
Gunther tore the hands from his shoulders and pushed him away.
“Well, that’s bloody rich coming from you, Albert! You seemed to have been keen enough to know her!”
“Well, I’ve grown up,” he spat, “and it’s time you did. The Jews have it coming. They’ve ruined us and they’ll pay. Our family has a pure racial heritage and I’ve traced us back over four hundred years. That kind of ancestry is going to be very important in the new Germany. So, if you love me, love mother and father, and you want to see us prosper, don’t go around chasing Jews – there’s no future in it. Do you understand?”
Glaring at him, Gunther stood up, threw his cigarette down and stamped on the butt. Ignoring Albert, he brushed past him and went inside, almost on the verge of angry tears.