The Berlin Project
Life has two important dates—
when you’re born and when you find out why.
1. September 26, 1938
Not yet an hour on the ground back home in America, and already he was in trouble.
Karl Cohen had just passed through the immigration office with his new bride, Marthe, when the family descended. His tiny aunt Ida tossed off the cheerful accusation, “Where’s your shiksa wife?”—somehow missing Marthe three feet away, perhaps because of Marthe’s polished Paris look.
“She’s not a goy,” he muttered, voice low. Ida’s eyes danced mischievously behind horn-rims. Karl kept his smile steady.
His mother, Rae, led the tittering inspection brigade, all eyes now on Marthe’s tailored gray suit, fashionable hat at a rakish tilt, stylish brushed leather shoes, Paris fashion on parade. His aunt Ida embraced him, saying again, “She’s my new goy greenhorn niece, eh?”
“She’s not a goy,” Karl said stiffly as his uncle Jack leaned in for a handshake, saying gruffly, “Name’s not very Jewish, this Marthe. How do you spell it?”
Karl managed to ignore that as his sister Mattie rapped back at Jack, “The French way, damn it.”
As Karl managed the leather suitcases in their dustcovers, he said, “She’s as much a Jew as you, Jack.” He couldn’t keep a grating tone out of his voice.
In some official way that was true, though Marthe had converted from Catholicism only a week before, and gotten her tourist visa the day after that. Jack nodded and helped with the hatboxes, the toilet case that tinkled from the cut-glass bottles within, and another case for soap and cosmetics. The army of gear a woman carried! Karl had never known that till the
hurricane-swept voyage over on the Normandie—pursued, a deck officer said, by a German U-boat. More drama than a honeymoon cruise needed.
They came onto the Pier 49 entrance along the Hudson River, the women afloat on their chatting, Marthe’s eyes darting among these new relatives, her carefully lipsticked smile fixed, hand still clutching her passport with REPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE stamped boldly on it. “I had to show them the check you kindly gave me, for a thousand dollars,” Marthe said to Rae in her lilting fashion. The family brightened at this accent that made words flow like a liquid. “It is required, to show I am not an indigent. The inspector tossed my French francs aside as worthless.” Bronx laughs greeted this.
Karl breathed in the peculiar scent of Manhattan, its crisp urban flavorings. He felt a gauzy lightness as his family chattered around him. He was back, they were safe. The New World.
A shortwave radio on a chair was rasping out a speech in German and Karl recognized it: Hitler, making his threatened ultimatum speech in guttural, barking stutters. The oncoming catastrophe was pursuing them, even here. Would the English and French let Hitler take the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia? All signs at the Munich meeting said they would, or else there would be war.
Rae asked, “What will Hitler do next?”
“We decided not to hang around and find out,” Karl said as they got into two cabs. A chorus of agreement, but eyes were still on Marthe.
Karl ended up next to Uncle Jack, who bore in immediately, his usual brusque business style. “You don’t get the inheritance money from your grandfather Jonas, y’know, till I verify that your wife is . . . one of us.”
Karl bristled but kept his voice level. “She is—here.”
The certificate of conversion to the Jewish faith they got in Paris had gold script and flourishes. Jack studied it. “Just last week!”
“It’s official. She had been meaning to—”
Marthe broke in from the window seat, “I had been attracted to the faith before, and Karl made me finally do it.” She smiled, hands carefully knitted together in front of her. Karl noticed she wore her best leather gloves. “You will find my rabbi specifies the syllabus I studied.”
Jack’s mouth twisted, vexed. “You get nothing from my father’s estate if I judge her not to be a Jew, y’know.”
Karl softened his tone. “We have nothing to live on, Jack. I had to get her out before the war.”
Jack scowled, turning away from Marthe, and whispered, “My dad felt we Jews should stick together. But this new gal of yours—”
“—she’s a Catholic, just got some paperwork done, that doesn’t mean—”
“Jack, I’m broke.”
Jack frowned and worked his mouth around, as if tasting something sour. A short snort of frustration escaped his teeth. “I’ll think on it.”