Sibylle Knauss

Eva's Cousin


Eva was a good teacher of the art of outshining other women by showing yourself off to fashionable advantage, not so much to impress men—that's not the point, that's more of a desirable side effect—as to make other women wonder what they're doing wrong when they set eyes on you. Oh, my dear, don't you know that headscarves are worn over the forehead now? No one, but no one ties them under the chin anymore! She was always catching you out in ignorance of this kind, as if you belonged to a banned political party and still bore its visible signs and tokens about your person. Such women do exist. All efforts made by others to be fashionable are poor copies. These women sweep their followers along with them this way and that, in a factional struggle that passes entirely unnoticed by men, and my cousin Eva was one of them. She was one of them to the very last hour of her life, for which she made herself beautiful.

Good heavens, child, what do you look like? she said when we saw each other again. Well, there's a good hairdresser here. I think I'd better make you an appointment with him straight away.

But I am running ahead of myself.

When the train drew into Munich I was almost alone in it.

Two days earlier there had been an air attack on the station and its surroundings. The main building had been partially destroyed. Rough board partitions separated the rubble from those areas where it was safe to walk. Notices were still hanging at an angle. Lighting had been torn out, the roof above the platforms was propped up on makeshift posts. I was probably risking my life when I got off the train, but we did that almost all the time anyway.

Every farewell could be forever. Every arrival could be for the last time. Every departure could be final. The young Wehrmacht soldiers boarding the train on the opposite platform knew that many of them would never come back.

I made my way through embracing couples, swaying as they stood there in sorrow and bewilderment, I passed mothers raising their hands lightly to wave good-bye, just sketching the gesture to spare their sons the sight of the collapse they would suffer as soon as the train began to move, one mother with her hand pressed to her mouth, another with her hand still raised in the air, as if she had spent years taming a hawk and had now let it fly free. And there it went, there it went, and who knew if it would ever be seen again?

I tried to push through the crowds of people taking leave of each other. I sensed the pain and despair around me as you sense the climate on reaching your journey's end, a breath of air in which alien and curiously familiar messages are mingled. I saw the train on the opposite platform begin to move, I saw the platform emptying, I braced myself against the current of people seeing travelers off who were now making for the exit. I stayed until I was the last person left. Only then did I realize that no one had come to meet me.

I still remember my disappointment at Eva's absence. It was partly shame, a hollow, mocking echo of my earlier misplaced delight. How could I have thought that seeing me was important enough to get Eva to the station on time?

So there I stood with my suitcase, and I had overdone it there, too: The case was too big, too heavy, stuffed too full. Unable to make up my mind what to take, I had packed far too much. Now I wished I had an elegant little bag instead of this monster, a suitcase of my mother's. I could already hear Eva's mockery: Good heavens, little one, that's a wardrobe!

I didn't yet know that she herself was in the habit of traveling with far too many bags. I think she felt the most important thing in life was always to have the right frock for the right occasion, and even on her last journey she took a wide assortment of clothes and several suitcases.

Since then I have practiced the difficult art of traveling with hand baggage, less and less of it. A single unnecessary item in my case can spoil all my pleasure in a journey. I strive for the ideal of total, minimal, almost mathematically precise perfection in packing. Everything necessary must go in, everything unnecessary be left out. Perhaps this obsession began there in Munich, when I was conscious of both the excessive weight of my suitcase and my shame at not being met. I began to haul the case in the direction of the exit.

Then I heard my name over the loudspeakers.

It's odd the way you react with alarm to the unexpected mention of your own name. You feel suddenly caught in the act of something, but also one of the elect. For a moment anything seems possible. Who's that speaking? The god of railway stations? Who does he mean? Me? How does he know me? How does he know I'm here?

All I could do was follow the instructions and go to the Holzkirchen station exit. Eva would be waiting for me there, I thought. My beautiful cousin. The only member of my family I admire. The only one I want to learn from. The woman whose riddle I would like to solve. Whose mystery interests me, just as love and passion and their forbidden side interest me. The woman who is Adolf Hitler's lover.

She'll hug me. She'll inspect me critically, with mocking amusement. She'll notice that I have grown since we last met. (At least, I hope she'll notice.) Her attention span is always short, so she'll soon turn it to something else, and we'll go back to her house in Wasserburger Strasse, and I shall be at my journey's end.

But she isn't there.

There's an SS man waiting for me at the Holzkirchen station exit instead. He takes my case while another SS man opens the door of a gleaming black Mercedes-Benz. I sink into the leather upholstery of the backseat.

All this happens with the startlingly heavy emphasis of the opening shots of a film, where the first scenes overpower you whether you like it or not, eliminating any other ideas from your mind and leaving nothing but a passionate interest in finding out what comes next. An absolute desire to decode what is going on. All beginnings are emphatic.

We have instructions to take you to the Obersalzberg, says one of the men.

They don't seem to be expecting me to say whether I want to go or not.

Munich had changed since I was last there. All cities were changing at that time as they fell to dust and ashes before our eyes.

Part of the station area was closed off. Squads of men were at work sorting out the ruins, putting steel with steel, wood with wood, broken glass with broken glass. The rest was still lying around: bits of masonry, splintered fragments, the ragged ends of electrical wiring. Doors boarded up, windowless facades with nothing left behind them. Stairways projecting into this void.

Today, it seems to me incredible that I drove through such devastation and was still full of questions and expectations about the rest of my journey. Shouldn't I have been more shaken? Shouldn't what I saw have upset me enough to make me forget the aim of my journey, my fears, my hopes, my wish to find out what happened next? Shouldn't it have canceled out my own restless ego?

Several times we had to drive around roadblocks with towering mountains of rubble or bomb craters behind them. Several times people barred our way where the pavements were no longer passable: young antiaircraft personnel hurrying to their posts, Red Cross nurses on their way to the hospital, bent old ladies pulling little handcarts behind them. They were all looking at the ground, as if there were a ban on looking up and seeing the destruction around them. They all seemed to be in a great hurry, as if they had to cross some no-man's-land quickly, without delay. It was only when my driver hooted, as he frequently did, that they suddenly looked up and stared through the car windows at me. Not with hostility but with surprise, as if woken from a dream. Where are we? their glances seemed to ask. And who are you? Where are they taking you?

I saw in their eyes that I was important. Valuable, irreplaceable. Some kind of precious object. And I liked that, I liked it enormously.

Where's my cousin? I asked.

The men sitting in front of me were just lighting cigarettes.

Want one? the driver's companion asked me.

Yes please, I said.

There was nothing I wanted more just then.

Even today, memory can make a recidivist smoker of me. I remember how I leaned back. How I inhaled deeply, inhaling the poison of that moment

When did people ever smoke as greedily and fervently as we did then? If you watch old films today you can still feel something of the atmosphere. The fraternal tie between us addicts. The passing of half-smoked cigarettes from hand to hand. The way we carefully took them between thumb and forefinger and raised them to our lips. We smoked like chimneys. It was the fire that lured us, the fire to which we were addicted. Unhealthy? Yes, of course. As unhealthy as life itself; you can burn your fingers on life.

Eva smoked, too, although the man she loved had forbidden her to do so. She smoked with the petty, illicit satisfaction of schoolboys smoking in the lavatory, relishing her forbidden freedom with every inhalation, enjoying the delicious giddiness it induced in her. There's always a certain arrogance about smoking. A defiant attempt to snatch from life what it won't give freely. In essence it is similar to lying: a nothingness that is still harmful.

German women do not smoke, we had been told. German woman do not drink. German women do not wear makeup. What a laugh! If I'd been told I could have three wishes granted: A cigarette, I'd have said. One wish gone. A lipstick, and perhaps a cream cake if possible. Oh yes, I almost forgot: I wish the war would soon be over.

How sad that this test of character was always bound to fail.

Isn't my cousin in Munich? I asked.

Only when the men answered no did I remember that they had said we were going to the Obersalzberg.

Did I know where they were taking me?

Oh yes, I knew. We all knew about the Berghof. It was—how can I put it—a place as familiar as a childhood scene, yet at the same time strange and full of secrets.

That towering flight of steps leading up to the reception terrace: We had seen Goring and Ribbentrop, Bormann, Himmler, Goebbels, and Speer climb it, eyes raised aloft; we'd seen them disappear to the right among the colonnades, where we assumed the entrance to the house must be. We were always left at the foot of the steps along with the common herd, the cameramen, the chauffeurs, the hangers-on. We were the infantry. The newsreel cinema audience. Now and then, from that vantage point, we had seen the master of the house emerge from the colonnades to welcome his guests, going a little way to meet them, a pace or so over the terrace, even down a few of the steps, depending on who they were, never too far, better not to go far enough. Lloyd George, Edward Vlll and his lover Wallis Simpson, Mussolini, Chamberlain...we leaned back in the cinema seats. We were there. From far below we watched them climb the steps, a steep and sweeping flight that might have led the way to some mighty monument, an Aztec citadel, a place not made for mortal men unless they approached with the intention of offering prayers, bringing gifts, or accepting instructions from on high. And there he stood, the master of the house, watching their faces flush with the strain of the climb, hearing their chests wheezing. They were always out of breath when they reached him, while he was perfectly composed and at his ease.

He went only as far as the top step even to meet Chamberlain. The old gentleman, almost seventy years of age, had traveled by air for the first time in his life in order to comply with Hitler's wishes in every respect, and was still rather bemused by his bold and spirited venture into the modern age when he found himself at the foot of the steps, with Hitler high above him in the unexpected pose of a man waiting impatiently, as if he supposed that a visitor invited to see him might get a move on. And even as the British prime minister struggled to achieve the thin smile he habitually assumed for the photographers on such occasions—they were allowed up to the terrace in front of the house this time—Hitler had already turned his back with an economical gesture, a backward wave of his right hand, which appeared strangely limp and undecided, as his gestures, surprisingly, often were, indicating that if his guest insisted on a discussion he had better follow him. You should never try appeasement with anyone who receives you in a place like that.

Everyone who visited Hitler's Berghof had to face the stairway trick at the start.

I would never have thought I'd climb those steps myself hundreds of times in my life. They were not in fact as steep as I had always imagined them, but something of their inimical nature, the hostility inherent in them, was conveyed to me. If you wanted to run up a flight of steps two at a time, as I usually did in those days, they were recalcitrant. Sometimes the steps seemed too broad, sometimes too high. You couldn't get any rhythm going. There was something malicious in that flight of steps, and it was the same going down. It seemed to have been built on purpose to make you stumble, and none of all the guests who went up and down it can have been spared occasional nightmares of falling farther than they had ever thought to fall, into an abyss of misfortune, a true inferno of defeat, with Hitler laughing scornfully from an unattainable height overhead. When they were descending the steps toward their waiting limousines they all carefully looked down, even Hitler himself kept his eyes on the toes of his shoes, and anyone authorized, as Mussolini was, to close ranks and walk beside him would voluntarily hold back slightly, carefully sounding out the stairway step by step, and shuffling a little.

Even now I sometimes dream I have to climb down the flight of steps outside the Berghof. And there is no handrail, nothing. Only the endless steps going farther and farther down. It is one of those dreams that you can end only by casting yourself into a void. There is no other way of returning to the present and to waking life.

Of course I knew where I was going. I knew about the huge mechanically operated window in the Führer's great hall with its view of the Untersberg, looking toward Berchtesgaden and the Watzmann massif beyond. The window before which even the Führer himself looked forlorn and curiously small. This was his window on the world. The world presented itself to him there, a mighty stage set consisting of the sky and the mountains, high and lonely peaks, remote from mankind, cold, covered with snow most of the time, a wooded zone below, and farther down, very small and very far away, the tiny human world, scattered dwellings, ephemeral, marginal, of little importance in this image of impressive, overpowering force. A flicker of his eyelashes would wipe it out.

The caption in our cigarette card albums read: "The Führer has made great decisions here." I had been a passionate collector of these cigarette cards. I owned the full set. I knew that Hitler's living quarters in the Berghof were of gigantic dimensions, divided into two floors by a flight of dark-veined marble stairs. The lower story looked out on the valley through the great window, so that anyone coming down and into the hall from the upper story caught his breath, understanding how the world must look to a man when he has it at his feet. And I knew about the hearth at the far end of the hall, its surround made of the same marble as the stairs. I knew about the coffered ceiling of heavy, brown wood with elaborately staggered panels and the two gigantic chandeliers hanging from it, one in each part of the hall, encircled densely by tall, candle-shaped electric bulbs on round frames. It was these chandeliers that gave the room a perceptible suggestion of the Nibelungenlied, as if knights of the ancient chivalric orders gathered beside the fire by night to swear secret oaths and plan new acts of violence, revenants risen from their tombs of old, tombs that had never been entirely sealed, sworn brothers in arms like the men in Agnes Miegel's poem, which we had learned by heart:

In that hall sat many a lord
While the flames burnt ever higher,
Hagen Tronje with his sword,
The kings assembled by the fire....
I loved that poem. It sent shivers down my spine. It was an intoxicating singsong, chanting of strange things. Gold and blood, the flicker of flames. It contained all the sex appeal of downfall and ruin.

Softly Lady Fiedel sighed, / rapt in thought and dreaming still; / Sang Volker: In the forests wide / flows a fount, flows a cool rill—I imagined Eva sitting in the flickering firelight of the hall, like Fair Kriemhild—Beside the flames Fair Kriemhild stood, / her slender hands held fast / the quivering light, like gold and blood, / which on the walls was cast...

Oh yes, Eva fit into that picture. She fit into this hall. I knew it even before I saw her there. Its architect had shown a feeling for atmospheric detail. The paintings on the walls in their heavy gilt frames, the Feuerbachs, the Bordone, on the other hand, were like a concession to a more or less alien civilization. Like items of loot displayed in the conqueror's palace to show everyone that they, too, were his.

This was Hitler's living room, no more and no less. The place where he felt at home. It covered 285 square meters and was furnished with comfortable sofas and armchairs. The domestic arena of his private world.

Later I saw such places portrayed in James Bond films. The villains lived there, powerful and ruthless characters working on great projects for ruin. It was remarkable how easily I recognized the aura again.

Those were remote dwellings: Goldfinger's ranch, idyllic, close to nature, a place where privileged guests were received. Mettlesome cars and horses. All the harmless amusements of the rich and powerful. But the great wood-paneled hall, deceptively welcoming, can suddenly turn into a prison. At the touch of a button walls open and close, windows fold away and disappear, the floor moves. Beneath it lies a world of dangerous passages, unlit cells, subterranean dungeons. Woe to anyone who ventures in. A world of bunkers.

Dr. No's hideout in a nuclear reactor under the sea. The security airlocks that have to be overcome. The thickly armored doors through which you reach the living area, as if entering a huge refrigerator. The well-trained staff welcoming you, making you comfortable. The master of the house is expecting you. All the plush splendor of his private rooms, given the lie by plain granite-colored walls of natural stone. Gold-framed paintings. A touch of the rococo. Lace, tapestries, cut-crystal glasses. Brass candleholders. A whole battery of the choicest alcoholic beverages in the bar. And the view? A window about the same size as the window on Hitler's panoramic mountain view, but with the creatures of the sea swimming beyond it, much magnified. Dr. No's maritime zoo. His aquarium.

Minnows pretending they're whales, just like you and me, says James Bond. One feels safe in here, though.

It depends, Mr. Bond, which side of the glass you're on, replies the master of the house with grim humor.

Back in the sixties, when I saw these films in the cinema, I knew I had once been in such a place myself. But how did Ian Fleming know so much about them? Or is the pattern an old one? As old as the dreams in which we must go down to the deep, dank dungeons of the underworld? Are the architects of evil habitual offenders, carrying out to the letter instructions that are always the same?

I shall know the place again in Hell: seven square kilometers, guarded and enclosed by a double barbed-wire fence. The uniformed men. Their anonymity. Their omnipresence. The checks carried out before anyone was let in, the steep uphill climb, the breathless hesitancy with which you approached, that panic-stricken sense of being an intruder who cannot escape punishment. The friendly welcome from well-trained servants. The guestrooms that could have been in a hotel. The wooden paneling, the fireplaces and tiled stoves, the floral furnishing fabrics, the comfortable club chairs actually inducing a sense of discomfort. The aspirations to art and culture, the Bechstein grand, the brocade tablecloths on all the tables, the hothouse flowers always rising a little too far from narrow-necked curving vases, flowers fanning out in cobweb shapes, red tulips, white lilies, constantly replaced by fresh blooms like a statement that is no more valid for all its repetition. The underworld below, where no daylight could penetrate. The gratings over the shafts, the heavy armored doors, the fear of having to go down there some time or other.

And you always do have to go down. There's nowhere else to go once you arrive in the country house of Evil.

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Excerpted from Eva's Cousin by Sibylle Knauss. Copyright © 2002 by Sibylle Knauss. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.