The Canceled Czech

Page 7

He strutted away from the table like a toy soldier. Greta put her hand on my arm. “Sometimes Papa takes things too seriously,” she said. “He cannot relax. He feels he has been given a mission to perform for Germany, but he does not know what it is, and it eats at him and drives him mad with frustration.”

“He should know that he is doing his part.”

“Perhaps he wants to do more than his part. He did not show this to you, but he is very proud that Heinz Moll sent you to him, that he is able to be of assistance to you. It is important to him. He has encountered, oh, a great deal of trouble over the years, you know. Not only since the war. Even during it, when we were a part of Germany. I was not even born then, but I have heard talk. It was very hard for him.”


She hesitated, then licked her lips. “He might not forgive me for telling you.”

“I’ll say nothing to him.”

“Please don’t. You see, Papa was a member of the Sudeten Nazi League even before the annexation. Long before the annexation. And they teased him then. His theories about race.”


“His… well, his physique. He is short, you know. And he is dark, both his hair and his complexion. And his eyes, I don’t know if you noticed, but his eyes are brown.”

“Not exactly the Nordic ideal.”

“No, not at all. And his foot, you know. Poor Papa.” She lowered her eyes. “Mama told me it was even worse for him during the war. You know of Hitler’s policies for improving the race? People who were found to be… uh… defective-”

“I know.”

“I would never question the wisdom of the Fuehrer’s ideas. I believe in them very strongly myself. But they cannot be applied to everyone. Not to the leading supporters of the Fatherland.”

“There are exceptions to every rule,” I said.

“Exactly. In any case, certain persons had to be eliminated. Incorrigible criminals, lunatics, giants, cripples, dwarfs.” She shuddered violently. “Papa was almost classed as a dwarf. Can you imagine? He is short, but you couldn’t call him abnormally short, and certainly not a dwarf. But they judged solely by height. Fortunately he wore a pair of special shoes for the examination, and the doctor – he was an old Party friend – listed his height at 4’7”. They were transporting those under 4’6”. So he passed. But you can imagine his humiliation.”

I nodded.

“And then his foot, his poor foot. It was a birth defect, not a genetic trouble at all, but some fool of an administrator determined that Papa ought to be sterilized for the good of the race. It makes me sick to think of it. Fortunately he managed to perform an important personal favor for a Party official and the orders for his sterilization were destroyed.” She lowered her eyes again. “He was frightened when I was born. I was born during the last months of the war, though he did not know then that it was that close to ending. He did not believe Germany could be beaten. He did not realize that the Jews would manage to stab us in the back just as they did in 1918, and that we would be beaten by their betrayal. And he was desperately afraid that I might… that I might resemble him. That I might be very short, and dark, and perhaps even lame-”

“I’d guess he has nothing to worry about.”

“No.” She smiled and brightened the room. “It is fortunate, isn’t it? That I turned out as I did?”

“Very fortunate.”

“He feels I am living proof of his pure Aryan heritage. He says that he is of a special class of German, like Goebbels. A short German who grew dark. But pure Aryan nevertheless.”

“It is the obvious answer.”

“I’m glad you understand.”

Later I sat in the living room with Neumann. Greta was upstairs. “One favor I have to ask of you,” he said.

“Ask it.”

“You must be very careful of Greta.”

“I don’t understand.”

He turned aside, sucked pensively on his colorful teeth. “This Kotacek, what do we know of him? He works for the Reich, true. But he is a Slovak, also true. And blood will tell.”

“You are concerned that he-”

“Yes.” His eyes probed mine. “She is only a child, Tanner. Only a child. And you know what old men are like when lush young girls are near. A good German has strength of character, he is able to resist temptation. But this Kotacek. Now I would say nothing against him, you understand. I do not know the man. Still…”

“Of course.”

“You will make sure that no harm comes to her?”


And a few minutes later, when Greta joined us, he went over what he had learned in the streets. “The trial will begin in four days. That gives you time if you act swiftly. Janos Kotacek is being held in Hradecy Castle. Do you know it?”


“An old castle of the days of the Bohemian nobility. When our forces marched into Prague, the castle became Hradecy Prison. Czech saboteurs were interned there, along with racial undesirables awaiting shipment to the Fatherland.” Neumann paled slightly, then regained his coloring. “After the war the Communist government converted the structure into a castle once again. They thought it might serve as a tourist attraction. It is an inspiring building on the riverbank, with big towers and gables and the like. Would you like to see such a building?”


“Would you travel thousands of miles to Prague just for the pleasure of examining such a building?”

“Probably not.”

“Neither did anyone else. And, as this government remained in power, it discovered it had more need for a prison than a dubious tourist attraction. So the castle was converted a third time, made once again into a prison. From what I have heard, Kotacek is being held in one of the high towers. There is a guard at his door, and there are guards throughout the prison.”

“I see.”

“It may be difficult for you, but you will have Greta’s help. And of course a pair of Germans can outwit a clutch of stupid Czech guards. Besides, you will have two or three days to do it.”

“Can we get help in Prague?”

“Help? I don’t understand.”

“From other loyal Party members.”

He shook his head. “I know many such men in Prague. But I know none I could trust absolutely.”

“But the two of us against a fortress-”

“I am sure you can manage it.”

I thought for a moment. I closed my eyes and pictured the two of us, Greta and I, tripping blithely up the prison, she bumping her fine body against me every step of the way, while the Czech guards showed us on our way, up to Kotacek’s tower cell and down again.

I said, “Perhaps it might be worth the risk if we could just enlist half a dozen men.”

“The risk is too great. I could not permit it.”

“If you picked the men you were most sure of. Or if you let me sound them out myself-”

He was shaking his head. Then, with great reluctance, he said, “Perhaps I can tell you something that will show you just how great the risk is. You can see this house, that it is a nice home? And that we live comfortably, Greta and I?”


“Have you thought to wonder what it is that I do for a living?”

“It’s not my business.”

“Of course it is your business.”

Greta said, “Papa-”

“No, it is right that Herr Tanner should know. I do not work. I am paid by the filthy Communist government to inform them of the activities of the Bund. Of course I tell them nothing important. I fill their ears for them, I give them trivia and withhold more valuable information. But now do you begin to understand? Even I am a spy for them, even Kurt Neumann, and I am the only man in Czechoslovakia you can trust!”

We left our planning Operation Kotacek about then. Greta brought cold beer and we knocked off a few bottles each and discussed the divine mission of the German people. The mood grew mellow. Neumann broke out a bottle of slivovitz, assuring me that they didn’t make as good a plum brandy in Germany as they did in Prague. He poured healthy slugs for each of us and we put a good dent in the bottle. Greta kicked off her shoes and sat down at the piano, and she played the “Horst Wessel Lied” and some other old-time favorites.

I entered into the spirit of things and sang most of the score of Weill and Brecht’s Die Dreigroschenoper. They had never heard it before. I explained that the Fuehrer had had a museum set up in one room of which The Threepenny Opera was played twenty-four hours a day, day in and day out.

“No wonder it sounds so good to me,” Greta said. “It must have been his favorite music.”

I left that one alone. I hadn’t bothered to explain that the music was played at what Hitler had called the Museum of Decadent Culture. That particular room was very popular for a time; it was supposed to be the only place in Nazi Germany where you could hear anything but Wagner.

“The melodies are so fresh, so alive!”

“And the words have a harsh German bite to them. Good Berlin realism. Not polluted by Jewish Communism.”

I decided that Brecht in particular would be enchanted by the scene. And through it all, through the beer and the singing and most of the bottle of slivovitz, Greta flirted more and more openly. She brushed against me when she went for more beer. She leaned far forward to refill my glass and to assure me in the process that there was nothing beneath her blouse but Greta. She’s a Nazi, I told myself for the thousandth time, and it did about as much good as the cold shower.

The night was threatening to last forever. Finally Neumann glanced at his watch, hauled himself to his feet, and announced that it was time for bed. “Herr Tanner must be tired,” he said. “And tomorrow will be a busy day for us all.”

I wished them both a good night and went upstairs.

I used to tell people the whole thing, about not sleeping, the wound in Korea, the effect it has had on my life, the medical opinions I’ve received, everything. I learned before very long that this was a mistake. All I ever accomplished was the dubious pleasure of having the same conversation five or six times a day, with no particularly interesting variations. Will it shorten your life? Yes, probably, but let’s talk about something else, shall we? What do you do with all your time? Read, write letters, work, play baseball, learn languages, dally with girls. Don’t you get tired? Of course I do, you idiot. Did you ever think of going on television, something like To Tell the Truth or I’ve Got a Secret? No. Never.

So I didn’t bother adding the interesting fact of permanent insomnia to the Neumann storehouse of interesting facts about Evan Michael Tanner. Instead I went upstairs to my room, closed the door, and stretched out on the bed to finish Czechoslovakia : A Nation in Name Alone. I couldn’t keep my mind on what I was reading but I went through the book anyway and finished it in about half an hour. It was the usual sort of diatribe, but I came out of it with three or four good points for my speech to the Bund.

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