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Bread and cheese crumbs stick to my feet as I tiptoe to the frosty front door where my shoes and coat are. The house is full of people celebrating the new year with merry laughter, music, and plenty of food and drinks. I know I should be celebrating, too, but tonight isn’t my night. I don’t feel as if it’s the time to be celebrating and stuffing myself. I just need to feel the crisp, fresh January air of Hamburg. To feel normal, as if I’m the daughter of a seamstress or shoe shiner instead of the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the city.
I slip into my polished black shoes and light blue coat and creak the door open slowly. I’ve almost stepped onto the front porch when little Ilsa comes barking and nipping at my feet. 0
“Shh, puppy!” I pick her up and stroke her tiny, caramel-brown head.
Of course, Mama follows her in.
“Where are you going, engel?” Mama asks, her face concerned but calm. I notice the small glass of wine in her right hand. “You know better than to leave when we have company over. And where do you think you are taking Ilsa? We don’t want a crazy old man to snatch her up on the street.”
“I’m just going out… for a walk. I have a headache. I need fresh air,” I say, placing Ilsa gently on the ground. She scampers off to the living room where everyone will pay attention to her.
“Alright,” says Mama, taking a dainty sip of her wine. “But be back soon. Bertilda has baked all kinds of desserts, even your favorite gingerbread cake.”
I nod and hurry out the door. The fact that she let me go without putting up a fight must mean she’s had a fair amount of wine tonight. I won’t complain.
Streetlamps flicker and glow as I walk down the road towards the town square. Even before I get there, I can smell the aroma of Lieselotte Schultheiss’s flower shop. She used to arrange bouquets for our family, but just a few years ago, my parents decided they’d never hire her as a florist again.
At first, I didn’t understand. But now, as more and more unfolds in Germany, I can see that something has happened between Christians and Jews. It seems as though everyone is expected to think of the Jews as less than they were before. It doesn’t make sense to me, but Mama and Papa act like it’s completely logical, like they never had Jewish friends before and never will again.
Still, all this won’t stop me from visiting my own Jewish friends. Mrs. Schultheiss used to take care of me when I was a baby, and I’ve always looked up to her. No one can change that.
“Why hello, Anneliese,” Mrs. Schultheiss says as I enter the door to her shop.
“Hello,” I say, taking in the medley of scents coming from all the flowers in the room. They’re strung across the ceiling and there’s even one tucked into Mrs. Schultheiss’s long, brown hair.
“I was just about to close the shop, but now that you’re here… I guess I’ll have to go get some coffee from the back room.”
Mrs. Schultheiss smiles at me and dashes back behind the counter in her shop. In my house, coffee is for the adults only. Here, I can relax and drink as much as I want.
The room is silent except for the trickle of coffee in the back of the store, so I sit down on a stool by the counter. Suddenly the door opens.
“Liese! I brought you-” the boy who just walked in stops in mid-sentence and stares over at me.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he says, holding a loaf of bread tight to his chest. Something in his eyes tells me he wants to say more.
“Oh!” says Mrs. Schultheiss, bolting out from the back room with a mug of coffee in each hand. She sets both mugs down on the counter quickly. “Hello, Willi. Thank you.”
She grabs the loaf of bread from the boy and shoves it away in a drawer behind her counter.
“So, children, why don’t you both sit down? I’ll get you some coffee, too, Willi.”
Mrs. Schultheiss disappears to the back of the store again and I’m left alone with this boy I know nothing about. Yet… he looks familiar. He has lightly tanned skin and dark hair. His eyes are a beautiful brown-green. And then I remember-
“Do I know you?” says the boy, practically taking the words out of my mouth.
“Well, you do look familiar. I’m Anneliese Foerster.”
I hold out my hand for him to shake, and he does, smiling at me.
“We used to play when we were little. I’m Wilhelm Mehler. Our parents used to be very good friends,” he says, still smiling at me with his wonderful eyes. I smile back, even though I feel a bite inside of me when he says “used to be”.
“Now I remember you,” I say. I do remember splashing around in mud puddles with him when we were children. Our parents were so mad when they saw how dirty we were. “But you look very different. You’re quite tall now.”
I don’t say this, but I can’t help notice he’s also quite muscular, handsome, and of course, his eyes are gorgeous.
“You look different, too. You always used to wear big ribbons in your hair.”
I was hoping he’d say I’d grown to be even more beautiful than I used to be, but not every boy knows just how to sweet-talk a girl. Oh, well. Ribbons are good, too. At least he remembers.
“You know, my favorite ribbon was the light blue striped one,” he says, his smile getting even bigger. He looks as if he’s far away, in a memory. Not here in this flower shop.
I’m surprised he remembers that ribbon. It was my favorite, too. In fact, it’s sitting on my dresser in my room at home.
“I’m sorry the coffee took so long,” says Mrs. Schultheiss, suddenly appearing next to Willi and me. She hands Willi his mug and then sits down behind her counter.
“You two know each other?” she asks. She’s obviously eavesdropped on my conversation with Willi.
“I guess you could say we’re old friends,” says Willi, grinning.
“Oh. Well, isn’t it a coincidence you met up here.” Mrs. Schultheiss takes a long swig of coffee and then twirls her hair around her finger.
“It really is!” I say, grabbing a biscuit from the tray Mrs. Schultheiss brought out. “We haven’t seen each other since we were babies.”
“Speaking of babies…,” says Mrs. Schultheiss, looking as if she’s going through a mental list in her head.
“Oh!” she snaps back to reality. “I was just… thinking. I tend to think out loud.”
I nod and take a sip of my coffee. Willi and Mrs. Schultheiss exchange looks. Mrs. Schultheiss sighs and rubs her stomach.
“Anneliese…,” she says slowly. “I’m going to have a baby.”
“What? You’re pregnant?”
“Yes. But Dieter does not know yet.”
“Aren’t you going to tell him?”
“He…,” Mrs. Schultheiss stutters. “He doesn’t think now is the time for us to bring a child into this world.”
My head is swimming. A baby? A little boy or girl that I could help Mrs. Schultheiss care for? Why would her husband be against such a beautiful thing?
“I don’t understand,” I say. The room is silent while Willi and Mrs. Schultheiss exchange another glance.
“Now isn’t a good time for Jews,” says Willi. “The discrimination is just starting, and Dieter thinks it isn’t fair to raise a child now, when it will grow up in such an unstable environment.”
I take a deep breath. I want to give words of encouragement, to say that if we work together, we can change this. But I can’t. Because I know I’m the enemy.