There was food in plenty; Schulz kept the major's kitchen stocked with enough to feed a platoon, and once again, I could not help wondering if he had an inkling of what I was doing. I was also able to go to the Warenhaus whenever I needed to, for cigarettes, vodka, sugar, extra household goods, anything the major might conceivably need for entertaining in his new villa. Of course, the soldiers who ran the Warenhaus had no way of knowing that half of what I got there went directly into the basement, and I was certainly not going to tell them!
The basement was cool even in the intense summer heat; there was a bathroom, and newspapers, which I brought down after the major was finished with them. All in all, the residents of the basement enjoyed quite a luxurious hiding place.
And yet it almost fell apart when the major moved in at last.
"The basement is finished, isn't it?" he asked me when he arrived.
All the hairs on my arms prickled with alarm. "Do you have some plans for it, Major?" I asked, keeping my voice from showing my fear.
He unbuttoned the top button of his tunic. "I'm sure it will do very well for my orderly."
I felt the blood drain from my face, and Major Rügemer looked at me in surprise. "What is it?"
I did not have to fake the tears that sprang to my eyes. "Please don't move him in here," I pleaded. My mind raced with explanations. "I never told you this, but at the beginning of the war, I was captured by Russian soldiers and -- and I was -- " My throat closed up.
The major frowned at me. "You were what?"
"They attacked me, sir, in the way that men attack women." I saw his face flush, and I hurried on, more confident. "I cannot bear to have a young man living here. It brings back terrible memories for me. Please take pity on me."
Major Rügemer dragged his handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose hard, shaking his head in anger. "War brings out the worst, the very worst in some people! Funny," he went on, "I always wondered why you didn't have a boyfriend, a pretty girl like you. I've never seen you flirt with the officers the way some other girls might do."
"I can do all the work myself, Herr Major," I pressed. "You will not feel any lack."
He put his hand on my shoulder. "Of course, Irene. I wouldn't dream of making you unhappy."
I smiled up at him. Sometimes it made me cringe inside, to get what I wanted by playing up my femininity. Yet I knew it was the one power I had, and I would have been a fool not to use it. For my pretty face, for the affection he felt for me, the major would let me have my way.
We quickly fell into a routine. Once he had moved in, Major Rügemer left for the factory every morning at eight-thirty. I rose at seven-thirty to start his breakfast, which he ate in the dining room. Often, he asked me to sit and have a cup of coffee to keep him company, and we would chat about nothing -- about the nest of blackbirds in the gazebo, or the way the middle C on the parlor piano stuck, or what kind of pickles went best with pork. Sometimes, if he was planning to entertain, we would discuss a menu for cocktails or dinner or after-dinner drinks. He stirred his coffee all the time in an absent way, and the spoon would clink-clink-clink against the cup as we talked.
Once he left the house, I locked the front door and left the key in the lock; this would make it impossible for the major to unlock the door from the outside and come in unexpectedly. This was the time when my friends in the basement could begin their day, taking showers, brewing coffee, listening to BBC war news on the radio while I cleaned the house. They smoked cigarettes as they read the paper and compared the official reports from Berlin with what they heard on the BBC. I returned to the factory every evening to serve dinner, but I always went home before the major.
Excerpted from In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer by Irene Opdyke with Jennifer Armstrong Copyright© 1999 by Irene Gut Opdyke with Jennifer Armstrong. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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