Kafka’s Ghost: A True Story

Composite image of Reinhard Heydrich and Franz Kafka

In light of the pro-war sentiments of political conservatives today, it’s important to remember that it was right-wing opposition to the Roosevelt administration that kept the United States on the sidelines as Hitler swept across Europe as the 1930s closed and World War II began. The true story of the Nazi horror lay ahead, but by time the Hitler annexed German-speaking Czechoslovakia in March 1939, the notion that nationalistic disputes could be settled diplomatically was already unraveling. Great Britain, France, Australia, and New Zealand declared war when Germany invaded Poland five months later. Within a short period the Nazis also seized Denmark and Norway. Belgium, France, and Luxembourg. The Netherlands soon surrendered without a struggle. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, America finally entered the conflict, two years after fighting in Europe had begun. 

The ultimate true-story horror—Hitler’s Final Solution of eradicating Europe’s Jews in Nazi death camps—lay ahead. Working for the intelligence and propaganda agency created by Roosevelt in preparation for war, John Steinbeck wrote his 1942 drama-novelette The Moon Is Down, a study of personalities and cultures brought into intimate conflict by the Nazi occupation of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and France. “I began to know and to associate with escapees from the occupied nations,” Steinbeck explained. “They spent their agonized energy trying to help the underground organizations which kept a steady and heroic resistance to the occupying Germans. And I became fascinated with those organizations which refused to admit defeat, even when Germans patrolled their streets.”  

 When The Moon Is Down was written it’s unlikely Steinbeck knew about the soon-to-be notorious Nazi general named Reinhard Heydrich—Heinrich Himmler’s second in command—who was given control of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), the Frank Kafka-scale bureaucracy that coordinated the SS Security Service (SD), Secret State Police (Gestapo), Criminal Police (Kripo), and the Third Reich’s foreign intelligence service. In The Moon Is Down Steinbeck presents Colonel Lanser, the occupying Germans’ local leader, as a thoughtful, thorough man, vengeful and violent but hardly a psychopath. Like Steinbeck’s fictional character, the real-life Reinhard Heydrich was cultured—a violin virtuoso with a university degree. Unlike Lanser, however, Reinhard Heydrich was also a zealous ideologue whose enormous organization would terrorize the continent of Europe and conduct mass murder on a scale unprecedented in human history. John Steinbeck read and admired Franz Kafka, whose vision of psychopathic hell was acute, but even Steinbeck couldn’t imagine such evil until it really happened. What follows is the true story of Rienhard Heydrich, the Nazi general who was one of the principal architects of the Holocaust, as I learned it from a witness to the horror. 

Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars. . . . 

                    John Steinbeck, The Moon Is Down

Kafka’s Ghost

It’s said you can make a telephone ring simply by getting into a bathtub. I had just settled into the chilly water of mine when my bell sounded its double ring. It was Gregor, emerging from wherever he had been for the past many days.

“John, you have not been to the village. I have looked for you. What is wrong, John? You are not well?”

Gregor lived with his wife Ana in a two-story Mediterranean-style house halfway between my apartment and the village, but it was along a path I didn’t normally take. My apartment was at the highest point on the small fishing island of Cheung Chau, one hour from Hong Kong by ferry. As there were no roads and no cars on the island, to get anywhere at all we hiked the narrow paths that meandered up and down the steep hills. Like Swiss mountain goats, someone once said.

“Everything’s fine,” I answered, standing at my desk and dripping bathwater onto the tiled floor. “But this is pretty early in the morning for conversation, Gregor. I’m only awake because it’s so god-damned hot. And I’m sticky. My bed’s wet. And on top of that, I’m covered with mosquito bites. Call me later, Gregor. Maybe we can meet at Alan’s . . . .”

Alan’s was a café on the waterfront close to the ferry terminal. Gregor had taught me to play backgammon at one of the tables there after I’d come to the island. That had been thirteen or fourteen months earlier, soon after I’d arrived in Hong Kong to research the years of the Japanese occupation during WW II. I was working on a book.

Gregor and Ana had come to Hong Kong from Israel a year or so before me. He had a stipend from a Tel Aviv university to study Chinese, but the amount he received each month wasn’t nearly enough. To survive, Ana had taken a job teaching English at a private school in Causeway Bay, and five mornings a week she got up to catch an early ferry to Hong Kong.

“I have a telephone now,” Gregor said. “I wanted to give you the number.”

“That’s expensive,” I answered. “How much was the hook-up fee for that?”

“Not much.”

“But the deposit, that must have been pretty steep. I think it was a thousand Hong Kong dollars the last I heard. That’s what I paid to get mine.”

“No. No deposit. I don’t know how much it is.”

People came and people went in the colony, and no one knew more about that than the Hong Kong Telephone Company. Hence the stiff deposit, which was put away, without interest, until the service was terminated. I couldn’t imagine Gregor handing that kind of money over to them to get a phone. He and Ana simply didn’t have it.

“Here’s my number,” he said, “but you can only call me back today and tomorrow. Well, maybe you can call me the rest of the week too. I will have to let you know about that. Can you write the number down?”

“I’m at my desk, that’s where the telephone is. But you wouldn’t know that because you’ve never been up to my house, have you?”

“No, it’s too far in this heat. And it’s too close to the cemeteries,” he answered quickly. “It’s always better that you come down here to my house.”

“What’s your number?”

All Cheung Chau telephone numbers were only four digit ones so they were easy to remember. I wrote Gregor’s down on the back of an envelope.

“The old man died,” he said while I was writing.

“What old man?” I asked.

“The one upstairs. The old man that used to play Chinese opera all day and spit down on me from his balcony.”

“I don’t think he was spitting at you, Gregor. You said he was old and had trouble seeing.”

“He made terrible noises. He coughed and spit for an hour every morning. But I was always in bed when he spit. Maybe he spit on Ana though. She went to catch the ferry when he was still on his balcony spitting. I will ask her if he ever spit on her.”

“You’re making that up, Gregor. Where have you been? I’ve been back and forth to Hong Kong and I’ve been down to the village many times in the past week. I’ve been around, it’s you who hasn’t been in the village.”

“What time is it?” he asked.

I looked for my watch under the piles of papers on my desk, pages and pages of notes I had put first in a yellow legal pad and then tore off as I transferred the information to my typewriter.

“I’m looking for my watch,” I finally answered. “I sweat so much I don’t like wearing it to bed.” Then I found it. “Hell, I don’t know what time it is, Gregor. My watch has stopped. I guess the battery’s dead.”

“It’s the morning fog. And the humidity, maybe. The wetness is on everything,” he said. “My walls are wet, my floor is wet, everything is wet. But come down, John. Come down now and I will make you breakfast. I have coffee and I will go to the bakery before you come. What do you want with your coffee? Cake? Bread? I saw you eating yellow custard cakes at the Ho-Ho Bakery once. Do you like cakes like that? I will get two of them for you. Maybe I will get two custard cakes and two coconut ones. Come, we will have coffee and have some breakfast.”

Gregor spoke with a graceful Eastern European accent so my repeating what he said does not do justice to the way he said it, nor do my words convey the childlike excitement of his words, especially when he talked about food. Still, his desire for it had not distorted his shape. He wandered around the island wearing shorts and a T-shirt most of the time, and though he had a slightly rounded belly as befit his age, I didn’t think he looked overweight. I’m sure the scarcity of money in his pocket had much to do with that.

“John? Are you there, John?” he called out anxiously.

I exhaled loudly. “I’m here. I’m thinking,” I answered. “It might be awhile. I’m just getting up and I don’t feel awake. It’s too hot and muggy to sleep, and it’s too early to go anywhere. Maybe later, Gregor, but not now.”

It was mid-April, and it was already sultry and uncomfortable. Every morning that week a dense fog had covered the island, a fog so thick it was impossible to make out anything more than five meters away. In the days to come it would be getting even worse, and then we would have days and days of rain, followed by a long summer of stifling heat punctuated with a series of ever-worsening typhoons.

“Those documents I was telling you about,” Gregor said, not to be put off. “I want you to see them, John. I think you will be interested in looking at them,” he said. “They are from the time of the war. I think you will be surprised.”

“I don’t remember you telling me about any documents, Gregor. Why won’t they wait until later in the day?”

There was a long, brooding pause. “Of course they will wait. Ja, if you want, they will wait. They have waited all these years already. How many years? Almost thirty-five, I think. Or maybe forty.”

I picked up my watch. “Those old documents?” I asked, my curiosity piqued. “Are they about Hong Kong? Are they something I’ve been looking for? Something to do with the Japanese occupation here?”

His pause continued for several seconds, then: “No, John, they are about Europe. They are about the Jews. But maybe it doesn’t matter.” Another pause, then: “I guess these documents can wait.  If you want, they can wait.”

I shook my watch to see if I could get it to go. No luck. I was feeling a little impatient. “But anyway, Gregor, we can talk about those things later, don’t you think?”

“Yes, later, but I don’t think you can get to Hong Kong to do any research today. That’s why I called you. It’s the fog. Some of the ferries are not running,” he said.

“Well, that’s a good excuse for us to stay on the island then,” I answered. “And maybe a good excuse for me to go back to bed.”

I was suddenly jolted. A ship nearby sounded its horn, and it was so loud Gregor couldn’t help hearing it too, both over the telephone and at his house. There was a nanosecond delay and then I heard it coming back to me over the phone from his flat.

“I must keep these documents of mine wrapped secure in plastic and not let them get wet in the fog,” he said. “They are very valuable, but if you are not coming down I will put them away. They are very old. Old and valuable. No one else has ever seen them. That’s why I wanted you to look at them.  I wanted your opinion about them.”

I reached for my pipe and sat down. “Ah, hell, Gregor, give me a little time to wake up,” I told him. “I hardly slept a wink. I can’t sleep when it’s this humid. I’ll have another rinse and try to be down there in an hour or so. I need that much time to feel awake.”

Ach so, that is good. That is good, John,” he said, perking up. “I bought a small bag of ground coffee at the Mandarin Delicatessen yesterday.” I could almost see the delight in his eyes. “I will make you a strong cup of thick European coffee. We will drink it black. With sugar. In the Viennese way.” he said. “But first I will go to the Ho-Ho Bakery in the village and buy us two custards and two coconut cakes . . . .”

Then he hung up in the middle of his sentence and I stood with a dead telephone listening to the haunting whistles of the wind buoys in the harbor. He had persisted, I had resisted, and he’d won. That was usually the way it was, but as long as I understood that, it didn’t matter. For reasons best known to himself, he had very few friends. Perhaps he’d been serious when he told me that having six friends at one time was enough: one for each day of the week, and one day– Saturday—for himself.

Yet I found him interesting and I enjoyed exchanging thoughts and impressions as we sat at Alan’s Café drinking coffee and watching the panoply of the village pass by on the waterfront. He was in Asia studying languages, specifically Chinese dialects. He had old shoe boxes piled high, each one filled to capacity with four-by-five-inch cards, everything indexed and cross-indexed.

There were more than forty dialects written down on those cards and in those old boxes, he said, each one possessing a key to the understanding of some phrase found in the mother-tongue. Once or twice I’d helped him put his notes in order, sitting in the small patio outside his flat in the shade of a large umbrella.

I helped him with his English, but I don’t think I contributed much. I don’t know what other languages he wrote his notes in. Chinese, certainly, and possibly German and Czech. He knew Chinese reasonably well, but he didn’t often speak it. His heavy accent made it difficult for the local Chinese to understand him.

In Israel his area of study had been ancient Middle-Eastern languages, though I wasn’t sure what he was seeking or what he intended to do once he completed his studies. He claimed he was searching for something that would keep him from working at an ordinary job, yet it seemed all jobs were ordinary to him. Between games of backgammon on the waterfront one evening he said he didn’t want to become a victim of scholarship and end up holding down a prosaic, dead-end job at a university. That, he claimed, would be the end of learning. Yet having said that, he expressed no interest whatsoever in anything outside the world of academia.

Except, perhaps, for food. He never stopped talking about food.

So early on I discovered that Gregor was not a happy man. He feared for his future, he was uncertain of his capabilities, he was obsessively apprehensive of death, and yet he ate all the wrong things, got little exercise, and he smoked cheap Chinese cigarettes continuously.  Sometimes when he spoke, especially about his studiesand always when talking about eatingI detected a childlike mien in him. That seemed incongruous, given that he had a full but neatly trimmed black beard, wore thick eyeglassesnearly always smudged with his fingerprintsand had a growing bald patch on the back of his head.

At other times it seemed a cloud of gloom lingered over him. As I got to know him, I came to think he had known happier times when he was at the university in Czechoslovakia where he had studied history. But then the Russian tanks came in. He told of seeing them enter Prague one morning while he was on his way to his classes. He described the way they sounded rounding a corner near his home and went rattling up the boulevard to Wenceslas Square. He told of the smell in the air that day, a smell of diesel fumes and tear gas. He was close to one of the tanks, he said, and he reached forward and touched it. He told of the feel of the cold steel under his palm.

“Like touching nettles,” he said, and that day he and a number of his classmates put aside their books, turned, and began their long journey to the West.

No, Gregor was not a very happy man.

I sat at my desk thinking of that and filling my pipe. The tobacco was damp beneath my fingers as I pressed it into the bowl and I slowed my activity as I reflected on the man. He was nearly my age, perhaps a year or so younger at thirty-five or six, and he’d travelled half the world looking, I thought, for a place to call home. I had too, but he’d experienced the horrors of war firsthand, something I hadn’t.

Soon after we met, he told me how his father and mother, teachers in Czechoslovakia, had destroyed all signs of their past when Hitler came to power in Germany. They’d read his book, Mein Kampf, and they had no illusions. They could see that he was evil incarnate, and as Jews they had much to fear.

Therefore, on the day he assumed the office of Vice-Chancellor in Berlin they began their purge. They destroyed all the books, papers, letters and photos they or anyone in their family had of them together, and they tore up their marriage document. They visited the schools where they had been educated and had their names stricken from the records. They burned their birth certificates and went in secret to the city hall where they tore out of the record books any pages that had their names on them as taxpayers, voters, property owners, or as teachers.

When the Germans came to Czechoslovakia their work was done: not only were they not Jews, they didn’t exist. They’d become non-entities, and on the day Hitler declared Czechoslovakia a protectorate territory of Germany, Gregor’s mother entered a Catholic convent close to the Austrian border and there she would remain until the final day of the war. She was several months pregnant when she arrived, and she’d soon be giving birth to Gregor, their only child.

“I was born in a nunnery,” he said to me, “so what do you think? Do you think that makes me holy? I am like Moses, no?”

I tried to light my pipe, but it was useless. I felt drowsy; I needed more sleep.

One of the ocean-going ships seemed extremely close to the house, its long horn blasts so loud they shook my windows. I looked out the window facing the sea but the fog was thick and I saw nothing. Putting down my pipe, I stretched out on the bed and closed my eyes, but once more the ship sounded its horn and I couldn’t sleep. In the end, I went back to the bathtub and sat in the cool water.

Finally feeling awake, I got out, dabbed myself with a damp towel, and went back to the bedroom to get dressed. And then, standing there naked in front of the wide-open picture window, the fog lifted. It rose up so suddenly it astonished me, and there below me in all its enormous splendor was the QE2, so close to shore its stern seemed to be resting in my front patio. I saw a number of people moving about on the decks, and if it weren’t for the waves rolling over the rocks on the shore below me I was certain I could have heard their voices.

I was spellbound, until I remembered I didn’t have any clothes on. I went back to fetch the towel to cover up and when I returned I picked up the case that held my binoculars. Obviously, this was the ship responsible for the loud blasts that had shaken the windows. It seemed to be anchored there, but it wasn’t because I could see its anchors hoisted against the bow.

Just resting, I thought, and I watched streams of dark smoke coming from its funnels and drifting my way in a thin, flat smudge. Watching it was like watching a film without sound, more and more people moving around on the decks, some pointing here, some pointing there, most of them staring out at sea or in the direction of Hong Kong Island eight miles in the distance.

Oblivious, a young couple had their arms over each other’s shoulders and swayed a slow dance on the back deck.

I turned to look out my other window and the fog had lifted there too, and the blue of the sky had become one with the blue of the water. They seemed to merge in a solarized kind of scene, the sea and the sky, and Hong Kong island was a large green lump rising out of it, its highest peaks buried under a cover of dense white clouds.

I began to hear the soft throbbing of the liner’s engines and I thought of all the people on that splendid ship. They had sailed many oceans and halfway around the world to get here. And now, to the right of them, was the low profile of Lamma island with its two or three slim clouds overhead, and to their left was Cheung Chau island, a minuscule dot of green on the landscape of their travels. They had arrived, those lucky souls, two or three thousand of them, living in the lap of supreme luxury on my seas, inhaling deep breaths of my air, their feet planted on a beautiful deck to marvel at my views . . . .

The thing is, their experience was bound to be transitory, while I had that pleasure every hour of every single day.

Standing there and seeing my world as they saw it suddenly highlighted everything for me, and for the first time in a long time it helped to explain why it wasn’t particularly difficult for me to put up with the heat, contend with the mosquitoes that pursued me at night, tolerate the geckos that fell from my ceiling, overlook the moisture that trickled down the walls, and the poisonous centipedes I sometimes found hiding in my shoes. And it was even possible to ignore the small cobras that came up the drainpipes and tried to share my bathtub, and it made clear to me why it wasn’t too difficult to put up with a few typhoons throughout the simmering months of summer.

The handsome black and white ship had been waiting for the fog to lift, and when it did the sea began to churn behind it, ever so slightly at first, large whirlpools drifting out to the back, the sea becoming a flat surface with a dozen or more large eddies swirling on it, and then the froth pumping up around the propellers. It slipped away, and where its bow met the water there was a thin white wake spiraling along its sides like an uncoiling snake.

* * * * *

Gregor was standing at his patio gate, perspiring heavily, dressed in blood-red shorts and a smudged T-shirt that he’d pulled up to cool his hairy chest.

“John, I think I am getting a rash from the heat,” he said, letting me into the patio and closing the gate with a loud clang. “Look,” he said. “My belly is red. It itches. Isn’t this a rash? Maybe I have the prickly heat. Do you think so? It looks like the prickly heat to me.”

His black beard and thinning hair were soaked with perspiration, but he managed a smile.

“Those people at the Ho-Ho Bakery, they think they can cheat us gweilos,” he said, using the Cantonese pejorative for us pale-skinned Caucasians. It means ghost person. He took a key from under a potted plant and opened his front door. The plant in the pot was turning brown from lack of water.

“They had fresh cakes at the Ho-Ho that they just took out of their oven while I was there, but they wanted me to accept their old cakes. Maybe they baked them yesterday, I don’t know. But I wanted the fresh ones. They were hot. They didn’t want me to have the hot ones.”

“So?  The old ones wouldn’t be all that old, would they?”

“Never mind, feel this.” He held up a small white paper bag and set it down in my palms. “You can feel that, can’t you? These cakes are hot.”

“They are,” I answered, giving him back the bag.

He smiled broadly.

“At the Ho-Ho Bakery you have to shout sometimes to get fresh cakes. I don’t like to shout, but sometimes you must.”

His front door squeaked as he pushed it open. “Go in,” he said, and I stepped into the room. It was sultry, even though he had left the windows open.

“Sit down,” he said. “Sit and I will make us coffee.”

He moved in quick jerks and hurried toward the kitchen. “I will take care of everything,” he called. “Sit, John, and relax yourself. You must be hot from the walk.”

Relaxing wouldn’t be easy. The room was stuffy. It was smaller than I remembered it, but it had been several weeks since I last saw it. And even then, that had been at night and from the outside when we came back from Alan’s Café and Gregor had set up a table so we could play backgammon in his patio. It had seemed bare to me then, and it was bare now.

When Gregor suggested I sit down he had been gesturing toward a mattress on the floor. It was pushed against the wall in such a way that half of it was folded up the wall to make a couch. It didn’t look particularly clean, although it was partially covered with a blue and white piece of cloth, something that looked like Malaysian tie-dyed material.

Facing Gregor’s makeshift couch was an elderly television set, and I guessed it would have been the one that he had inherited from Bertie and Darla Brewster, two English teachers who had lived on the island awhile and then returned home to England. It wasn’t on a table or a stand: it, too, sat on the floor.

Opposite it was a square fold-up table and a couple of round folding stools, and on the table were Gregor’s notes and books. Heaps of both. The books tilted and wobbled at various angles defying gravity and I couldn’t help but go over and straighten a couple of the more threatening piles. I wouldn’t have been able to relax if I didn’t.

There were three worn pairs of plastic flip-flop sandals next to the door, and beyond that there was little else in that tiny space, except, of course, the many cardboard shoe boxes that were stacked waist high against two of the walls. It was their front room, as well as Gregor’s study, but there was no view of the village, no view of the sea, there was no breeze, and it was stifling hot.

It was like living in a monk’s cloistered chamber. I wondered how much of it was a carry-over from Gregor’s childhood, his early years in a convent?

“Can you smell the coffee, John?” he called out.

I could, and it smelled good. He was brewing a pot of the genuine stuff, which was quite rare to me. Most of the time I and everyone I knew settled for instant coffee.

“I bought a small bottle of Dairy Farm milk,” he said. “It’s rich milk, full of cream. You can have that if you want milk in your coffee.”

Dairy Farm milk came in glass bottles and was the only natural milk sold in Hong Kong. Everything else was UV milk, which came in paper cartons. The milk in it had been treated with ultraviolet light and it seemed to last and last. At least until the carton was opened. All milk in Hong Kong was expensive, but Dairy Farm milk was even more expensive.

“You’ve won the Mark Six Lottery?” I asked. “First a telephone, then a bag of ground coffee? And now fresh milk in a bottle?”

He came in with two mugs and handed me one. The coffee was black and steaming. He had a bemused smile on his face, one that implied he’d been up to mischief. “Ach so, the telephone,” he grinned. “That’s funny. Let me show you, John.”

Cup in hand, he led me to the back of the flat. I saw the tiny kitchen only briefly, but it was time enough to see there were a lot of unwashed dishes in and around the sink.

Gregor led me into the bedroom. A large piece of cloth hung over the single window, a printed piece of yellow material that served as a curtain. The bed was another mattress laid on the floor, and there was a plastic wardrobe against the opposite wall.

It was an old plastic one, and the plastic was badly torn. The zippers were broken and the openings hung down far enough for me to see that the two of them possessed very few changes of clothes. There was a battered suitcase stored on top of the wardrobe, and under the only window in the room was the telephone.

“Look at this, John” Gregor said, holding up the thin connection wire and grinning. He held it between a finger and thumb and traced along it to the window. Then he pulled aside the curtain and turned to me with a look of complete satisfaction on his face.

“See?” he said. “It’s not connected here.”

I looked closer and saw the wire continuing out the window and going up the outside of the house.

“When the old man upstairs died, the family came to get him. I don’t know, John, he may have been dead for a long time. How did they know he was dead? They never came here. If they did, I didn’t see them. Oh, do you want some milk in your coffee?”

“Not yet.”

“They took the old man away yesterday when I was here working. I heard them bringing him down the stairs and I looked outside. They had him in a coffin and they carried him out the gate.

I don’t know, John, maybe the old man had his coffin upstairs all this time. The Chinese people do that, you know . . . .”

He looked grim and I saw him shudder.


“And when they were gone, I was curious. Curiosity kills the cats, is that what you say? Well, I was a cat. I went outside and the door to the old man’s flat was open. No one had locked it, so I went upstairs. It’s a bigger place he has upstairs. I can see the harbor and the village from his windows. It’s a nice place he has,” he said, talking as though the old man was still alive.

“He has many old books, and he has scrolls on his walls. Maybe he’s an educated man, I don’t know.  I suppose he must be.” He sipped the hot coffee. It was far too hot for me.

Ummmm, good coffee,” he said, lifting his cup and smacking his lips. “This is from the Mandarin Cake Shop. I bought a bag there yesterday.  Just a little bag, to have a treat.”

“I know. You told me.”

“So, it is a nice flat upstairs,” he said, picking up his chain of thought. “Maybe I will see if we can get it.  It has good views and it has breezes. We get no wind down here. It is too hot here. I will talk to the landlord about it.”

“What about the telephone?”

“Oh, yes, the telephone.” He began to twitter again. “I had this wire that I found across the road, over there where they are building new houses. And I got a knife and I went upstairs with the wire and I took off the little box on the wall and I hooked up this wire and threw it out the window so I could hook my telephone to it. We learned to do that in Czechoslovakia.”

“Where did the telephone come from?”

“I found that in the trash barrel up the way, up on the corner by the Mynah Bird Store. Someone had moved away and I guess they threw it in there. So I took it.”

“What happens now?” I asked him.

“I don’t know, but today I have a telephone. Maybe tomorrow I will have one also. Maybe not.  The number I gave you is the old man’s number. It’s upstairs on his telephone. It will ring here and up there at the same time; that’s why I don’t know how long I will have a telephone. Maybe someone will come to remove it, I don’t know.”

He led me out of the room to the front of the house, to his study.

“What do you think, John?  Do you think they will send me to jail if they find I have done such a thing?”

“No, not you. You’re a Westerner,” I answered, “and this is a British colony.”

“I’m glad. I wondered about that, but I thought as you do. No one puts Westerners in jail here.”

“I’ll have some of that milk now,” I said, putting my cup on top of the television set and taking out my tobacco. “I think it’s getting cool enough to drink.”

“You sure you don’t need sugar and no milk? That’s the Viennese way. Thick, with lots of sugar.”

“No, just milk,” I answered.

Ach so, okay. All right,” he muttered, mixing up his languages and going to the kitchen. “About those documents,” he said as he returned with the pint bottle and handed it to me. “They are here.  I have them in this box.”

I poured milk into my coffee and watched it swirl. I hadn’t noticed the box. It was on the floor beneath the table, a large metal safe deposit type of box with a little flip lock on it.

“But first,” he said, “we will have our cakes.”  He pulled the bag open and dipped a hand in to bring out a yellow custard cake. “Ah, your favorite,” he said, handing it to me.

He ate as though a man possessed.  We finished the cakes, but he finished long before I did. He had crumbs on his beard and went off to pour more coffee.

“Come now,” he said when we had finished the cakes and he carried away the empty cups. “I think you will be surprised by these documents.”

He squatted down to open the gray metal case and then carefully lifted out a thick parcel of papers and put them on the table. They were well wrapped in a clear plastic envelope, and there was no mistaking the fact that they looked old. Since there was so little room on the table, Gregor removed several piles of books and shuffled stacks of papers together to make space.

“I have been working on my Chinese dialects,” he explained, and then he paused, a long, solemn pause.

“Such work, so much work,” he sighed.

Then: “Look at this,” he said, sitting down on one of the small stools and peeling away the plastic and gently slipping out a bundle of papers. “Look, John. Do you see that?”

I opened the other stool and sat beside him. “Yes, I see it, but what is it? That’s German; what’s it about?” I asked.

“Look, here’s another one. And here’s another.

He laid several more documents on the table and leaned back. “Do you know what that is?”

“Of course I do, it’s a Nazi seal with a swastika.”

Ja, das Hakenkreuz. The Nazi sign, that’s it. And do you know what these are?”

I had no idea.

Slowly, and very carefully, Gregor opened a folded document and laid it out on the space he’d made on the table. It appeared to be a typed letter with the seal of the Nazis at the top, a black seal of an eagle with its wings outstretched. And beneath the eagle was a wreath containing the tumbling swastika.

GEHEIM REICHSAECHE”  was stamped across the top of the page in large red letters.

“Can you read the German, John?” Gregor asked. “It says TOP SECRET. And look at this word here.”

He pointed to it: “’BESPRECHUNGSPROTOKOLL.’ It means ‘CONFERENCE MINUTES.’ I asked someone for an exact translation of that once. That’s how I know.”

He adjusted his smudged glasses and began to read: “An der am 20, 1, 1942 in Berlin, Am Grossen Wannsee Nr. 56/58 stattgefundenen Besprechung über die Endösung der Judenfrage nahmen tiel, . . .

He stopped  reading and looked at me.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” I said, drawing an arm across my face to wipe away perspiration that was about to get into my eyes.

“But look at this, John,” he said with a trace of excitement in his voice. “Look at this name: Reinhard Heydrich.”

He turned and stared into my eyes.

“This is that man, John. Heydrich, the Nazi responsible for planning the killing of the Jews. Look, here is his title: SS-Obergruppenführer.”

He turned to look at the papers again.

“This is the man the Germans called ‘Der Hanker.’ That means ‘The Hangman.’ Other people called him ‘The Butcher.’ And this . . . .”

He lifted it carefully from the table.

“This is his document. Here he proposes to get rid of all the Jews in Europe. He calls it ‘Die Endlösung,’ the ‘Final Solution,’ and this document, John, it is called ‘The Wannsee Protocol.’”

Gregor suddenly put the pages down.

“One minute, just one minute, John. Too much coffee. I must go to the toilet . . . .”

I stood waiting, flies buzzing my head, looking at a pale green lizard sunning itself on the window ledge. I didn’t know what to make of the pile of papers on the table. They looked ancient and I had no doubt they were genuine. But they confused me. Sweat streamed from every pore of my body, though perhaps it only seemed that way.

There wasn’t a bit of wind blowing through Gregor’s open windows, but I saw that a breeze coming off the sea was slowly moving the branches of a bombax tree across the path in front of the house. I took a tissue out of a packet in my shirt pocket, dried my forehead, and looked again at the documents on the table. I wished my German were better.

Gregor returned.

“Sorry,” he said. “I had to rinse my face. I think I have the prickly heat. Ach, it is so humid today. But we must look at these documents inside the house. We can’t take them outside. I think the sun would be dangerous for them.”

I nodded agreement.

“I think you’re right.  What are those numbers?” I asked, pointing to the top of the first page of the document he had been holding.

He still had crumbs from the Ho-Ho cakes in his beard.

“That says ‘30 Ausfertigungen,’” he replied, picking the pages up again. “It means there were thirty copies made of this document. And under it, do you see that, John?  It says this is ‘3 Ausfertigung,’ meaning ‘this is the third copy.’”

He turned to look at me.

“Do you know what that means, John? That means this is a very historic document because it is Number Three. Number One copy and Number Two copy would have gone to the top, John. To Hitler and Himmler. So this one, Number Three, is the one that Heydrich had. It was his. Do you know that name, John? Reinhard Heydrich?”

I did.

I had spent some time studying the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, and I knew that Heydrich was the Nazi general in charge of security in the SS, Hitler’s private police force, dedicated to protecting Hitler with their lives. Its insignia was a skull and crossbones, and its members, like the pieces of Nazi property that they were, had their serial numbers tattooed under their arms. In the early days of the Nazi party they dressed in black and terrorized the German people until Hitler seized control of the government. Not many years later it was Heydrich’s SS that created the gas chambers to carry out the systematic extermination of Europe’s Jews. Himmler was the head of the SS, and Heydrich was his right-hand man.

“That’s right, you are right, John,” Gregor said, nodding. “Heydrich was the second in command of the SS. After Himmler. You would call him Deputy Head, or something like that.  But look . . . .”

He turned back to the document.

“On this first page there is a list of those in attendance at this meeting. Look: the Reich Minister for Occupied Eastern Territories; the Reich Minister for the Interior; the Reich Minister of Justice; the head of the Army Security Police; the Commander of Security for the Army; and then the names of a dozen others. And here, look at this, the name of Heydrich. And here, see this?  It’s the name of Adolph Eichmann.”

Eichmann? He’s the guy they called ‘The Exterminator,’ isn’t he? The one who  fled Nazi Germany at the end of the war? He went in hiding in Argentina, I think. Or maybe it was Brazil. Wherever it was, the Israeli secret police eventually found the guy and he was smuggled out of the country and taken to Israel and put on trial.”

“Yes, that was Eichmann. He was the one Heydrich chose to carry out this Final Solution plan.

Here, this was his title: ‘Obersturmbannführer,’ the head of State Security. In Israel they found him guilty of crimes against humanity and then he was hanged. But I will translate this for you, John,” Gregor said, bending forward and pressing his glasses firmly against his nose.

“This at the beginning; it is the introduction. And here is the date. It says: ‘Here in Berlin an der am . . . on 20 January 1942 . . . at Greater Wannsee Number 56/58, this discussion for the final solutiondie Endlösungof the Jewish question took place.

“That number,” Gregor pointed to it, “that’s the address of the house where this secret meeting took place. It’s a private house, a villa on a lake. It’s in Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin. That’s why this document is called ‘The Wannsee Protocol.’”

He lowered his head and resumed reading:

“The Chief of Security Police, Reinhard Heydrich, has been delegated by the Reich Marshal Herman Göring to make preparations for the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe, to clarify all matters and bring together all central offices immediately concerned with these questions to bring their general activities into line. The Reichsführer-SS and the Chief of the Security Police have been entrusted with the handling of the final solution of the Jewish question without regard to geographic borders. The Chief of the Security Police gave a short report of the struggle which has been carried out thus far against this enemy, the essential points being the following:

     (a) the expulsion of the Jews from every sphere of life of the German people,

     (b) the expulsion of the Jews from the living space of the German people . . . .”

The document was several pages long, and I closed my eyes to listen to Gregor’s translation. Then he paused.

“In the early days the Nazi’s got the Jews to leave Germany and go somewhere else, to other countries, or to go overseas. They made the rich Jews pay a tax to cover the travel expenses of the poorer Jews.”

He read the relevant section:

“In spite of extraordinary difficulties, 537,000 Jews were sent out of the country between our takeover of power and 31 October 1941.  Of these, approximately 360,000 were in Germany proper, approximately 147,000 were in Austria, and 30,000 were in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia . . . .”

“Yes, and here is the information about the tax on rich Jews,”  Gregor said:

“The Jews themselves, or their Jewish political organizations, financed the emigration. In order to avoid impoverished Jews remaining behind, the principle was followed that wealthy Jews have to finance the emigration of poor Jews. This was arranged by imposing a suitable tax which was used for financial arrangements in connection with the emigration of poor Jews, and was imposed according to income. Foreign Jews donated a total of around $9,500,000.”

He stopped reading.

“So you see, the Nazi’s took the money, and now they have stopped letting Jews out of Germany,” he said. “Also, they are at war with the United States, and so it’s too late. So now they have to find another way to get rid of the Jews. They discuss that in the next point:

“Another possible solution of the problem has now taken the place of emigration. That is, the evacuation of the Jews to the East, provided that the Führer gives the appropriate approval.

These actions are to be considered provisional, but practical experience is already being collected which is of the greatest importance in relation to the future of the final solution of the Jewish question. Approximately eleven million Jews will be involved in the final solution of the European Jewish question, distributed as follows among the individual countries:

     Germany proper131,800 


     Eastern Territories 420,000

     General Government2,284,000


     Protectorate of Bohemia & Moravia74,200

     EstoniaJudenfrei [No Jews]





     France / Occupied territory165,000        

     France / Unoccupied territory700,000 . . . .”

There was more, but Gregor stopped.

“That figure for Bohemia, that would include my mother and my father. They lived there, in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. That was the Nazi’s name for Czechoslovakia.  Since 1938 they had occupied it. I was born there, in Slovakia, in the convent. I told you about that. Just before this Wannsee meeting,” Gregor said.

“But look . . . .”

He lifted the page.

“You can see for yourself. The list of nations goes on and on. This is the Nazi record of Jews in every country in Europe, and see here, this is Switzerland, and Sweden, with 18,000 and 8,000 Jews. They even counted the Jews in neutral countries. Here is England with 330,000 Jews, and look, Ireland, with 4,000!  And here at the bottom, that’s the total of all the Jews in Europe and Russia: 11,000,000.”

The magnitude of what I was looking at suddenly struck me. Yet it was surrealistic, standing in a Jew’s house, here on a tiny Chinese island in the middle of the South China Sea, at a time almost forty years after the fact, hot, covered with sweat, Gregor, a lounging lizard and I, looking at something a group of senior Nazis had put together in the early days of the war: a piece of paper that would set in motion one of the greatest acts of mass extermination in the history of civilization.

“Good God, Gregor, this is too difficult,” I said, reaching for my tobacco pouch and loading my pipe.

I walked across the room to the television set and looked out the opposite window. A short way up the path I could see the green tarpaulin roof of the Mynah Bird Store.

“This is almost too much to grasp,” I said, puffing deeply on my pipe. “And it’s hard.  I mean it’s hard to picture these men. Fifteen grown men, educated men, presumably; intelligent human beings, one would guess, sitting together in a room and discussing this,” I said. “And yet they did, didn’t they?”

“They did, John. And they did it in the land of Beethoven and Bach. I heard someone say that once.”

“In the land of Schiller and Goethe and a few thousand other geniuses, too,” I interjected, shaking my head and pacing across the room.

I stopped and closed my eyes.

“I’m trying to get a picture of this: a villa on a lake. It’s January, so it’s cold outside. Bloody freezing cold. The lake is frozen. There is probably fresh snow on the ground. It’s dark, but inside the house it’s warm and comfortable. And the conference room, what’s it like? The floors are inlaid wood. Hardwood. Oak, maybe. Waxed and polished to perfection. So shiny they reflect the images of the people, the ministers in their dark suits and ties, the generals in their black uniforms and high boots.

“They sit at a long table smoking strong cigarettes and wispy clouds of smoke hovers over their heads. They wear their swastika armbands. This butcher, Heydrich, is at the head of the table, on his feet, reading this stuff to them. Music is playing. Soft music. I don’t suppose they had piped-in music in those days so there had to have been a radio or phonograph somewhere. In an adjoining room, probably. What is it that’s playing, Gregor? Debussy or Chopin? Not on your life. Maybe it’s Wagner or Bach. Probably a string quartet. Telemann?”

Gregor stood watching me as I moved around the room, his head tilted slightly to one side. He nodded slowly and put the document down to wipe sweat from his eyes.

I handed him a tissue from my packet. He blotted his face and used it to wipe his hands before picking up the papers again.

“Yes, these were educated men, John. Look, half of the men in the room have the title Doktor after their names.  Nearly all of them except Heydrich had advanced degrees.”

He picked up the pages again and went on translating:

Under proper guidance, in the course of the final solution the Jews are to be allocated for appropriate labor in the East in the European part of the USSR. Ablebodied Jews, separated according to sex, will be taken in large work columns to these areas for work on roads, in the course of which action doubtless a large portion will be eliminated by natural causes. The possible final remnant will, since it will undoubtedly consist of the most resistant portion, have to be treated accordingly, because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as a seed of a new Jewish revival (see the experience of history).

“In the course of the practical execution of the final solution, Europe will be combed through from west to east. Germany proper, including the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, will have to be handled first due to the housing problem and additional social and political necessities.

“The evacuated Jews will first be sent, group by group, to so-called transit ghettos, from which they will be transported to the East . . . .”

“I will skip this next part,” Gregor said dismissively. “It is complicated and difficult. They talk about mixed-blood Jews; Jews who have a parent who is not a Jew; Jews who have a parent who is a genuine German; and so forth and so forth. Everything is by degrees, and on that basis they discuss who will be deported and who will stay. And here they say this:

Persons of mixed blood of the first degree who are exempted from evacuation will be sterilized in order to prevent any offspring and to eliminate the problem of persons of mixed blood once and for all.

‘Persons of mixed blood of the second degree will be treated fundamentally as German, with the exception of the person of mixed blood of the second degree that has a racially undesirable appearance that marks him outwardly as a Jew, or the person of mixed blood of the second degree that has a particularly bad police and political record that shows that he feels and behaves like a Jew . . . .’”

Once again Gregor put the pages down, this time a bit dramatically.

“Look at me, John,” he asked suddenly, looking hard into my eyes. “No matter what my blood is, first degree or second degree or no degree at all, do I not look like a Jew? Of course I do. I have the features of a Jew: a prominent nose, black hair, a beard, thick glasses, maybe not a very attractive face. Am I not marked outwardly as a Jew?

“I am a Jew, of course I am. I have all the traits of one of their racially undesirable persons, and in the end, first degree or second degree, it didn’t matter. It would never have mattered. They didn’t have to define what a Jew was, or how a Jew looked or behaved.

“All that mattered was what the Germans thought a Jew was. That was enough. And did you hear that word I read earlier, that word ‘reinigen’—‘to cleanse’? They said it was necessary to cleanse Germany of its Jews, but as you see, their report includes Jews everywhere. Even the Jews in Ireland and the Jews in a tiny place like Switzerland worried them. And here is why; this last paragraph tells you why:

Jews must be removed from the territory of the General Government as quickly as possible, since it is especially here that the Jew as an epidemic carrier represents an extreme danger, and on the other hand, he is causing permanent chaos in the economic structure of the country through continued black market dealings. Therefore, the Jewish question in this area must be solved as quickly as possible.’”

Flies were buzzing around my head and I backed away from the table. Gregor put the pages down and went to the kitchen. He returned with a spray can of insect repellent and aimed it toward the table.

“God, no! Not indoors, Gregor!” I shouted, moving toward the doorway.

He looked puzzled. “How else to kill the flies if you don’t squirt them?”

“No, you’ll ruin your documents.  And you’ll ruin me.”

He looked at the pile of papers on the table and set the can of spray on the window ledge, frightening away the sleeping lizard.

“What do you think, John? Of these documents, what do you think?”

“I’m amazed. Really and truly amazed, Gregor. How in the world did these documents ever end up with you?” I asked, tapping the tobacco down in my pipe and searching for my lighter.

Gregor slowly shook his head up and down as he slipped the pages back into their plastic envelope and folded the top carefully to make an airtight packet.

“They came from my father,” he said calmly, still nodding his head.

“I have more things too,” he said, motioning to the other bundles wrapped in plastic on his table, “but I don’t think they are as important as this ‘Wannsee Protocol.’ Do you know, only one other copy of it has been found? Copy Number Sixteen. It was found in the file cabinet of one of those ministers after the war.

“But this one, this was Heydrich’s document. His alone, and that is true. And this, look at this. It’s a letter Heydrich wrote to his wife. But he never mailed it.  He was shot dead before he could.”

He carefully slipped it out and showed it to me. Three pages long, it was signed “Reinie.”

Gregor didn’t translate it, and I couldn’t decipher any of the old German script. Blue ink on grey-flecked stationery. Gregor nodded his head and put it and the Wannsee document back into the metal box. “Excuse me . . . .”

He went to the kitchen and returned with a packet of Good Companion cigarettes.

“After this Wannsee meeting, Heydrich went back to Prague where he was the governor,” he continued. “But as I told you, it wasn’t Czechoslovakia any more. It was the Protectorate of Bohemia.”

He shook his head.

“This man Heydrich was a tyrant, you know. Very cruel. The Czechs called him ‘Ta Rezník’ . . . ‘The Butcher.’ He executed 30,000 or 40,000 Jews in Prague alone, and he ruled the country like a man from Hell. The Czech people had to work for him in the Nazi factories, and others were sent to work camps because Hitler said the Czechs were almost as terrible as the Jews. The Nazis made all of them slaves. Secretly, Heydrich told his officers he would do to the Czechs what he was doing to the Jews, but that would be after Germany won the war.”

He wiped his forehead with the damp tissue and tried lighting a cigarette, but his matches were wet.

“My matches are soft from the fog,” he said. “Can I use your lighter, John?”

I lighted his cigarette and he puffed deeply and exhaled loudly.

“Come,” he said. “We will go outside and find some shade and get some air.”

We stepped through the doorway into the patio. A slight wind was coming off the water and it felt a little cooler. He stood looking out beyond his gate in thought. Finally he turned to me.

“Let us walk, John,” he said.

“Your papers . . . .”

“They are safe for now. They are dry. They aren’t bothered by the heat like we are. Let us walk to the Mynah Bird and I will get a cola and buy you a ginger beer.”

He closed the door behind him but I didn’t see him lock it.

“Oh,” he paused and pulled up short, his hands searching in his pockets. “I can’t go, John.”

He looked at me and twittered his embarrassed laugh. “Ana didn’t leave me money. I think she forgot. I only had enough money for the cakes today. That’s all I had. I am sorry; I forgot.”

“Come, for Christ’s sake, Gregor.” I nodded toward the gate. “I’ve certainly got enough money for a cola!”

Ach,” he said, holding the gate and twittering in embarrassment. “Ja, thank you; I will pay it back to you this week. For sure, John.”

We were on the path and he closed the gate. We turned to the right to walk to the small grocery shop and it felt good smelling clean air again. It seemed to me that the Nazi documents had poisoned the air in Gregor’s house.

“Ana will get another job teaching English in the evenings,” he said. “We will have more money then.”

We rounded a corner and took stools at a small wood table under the umbrella tree at the Mynah Bird.

“Maybe I will teach at Ana’s school too,” he said. “Do you think I could teach English, John?”

I hesitated before answering.

“No. I don’t think so.”

Ja, I don’t think so either. My English is not good.”

“It’s good, but not good enough to teach English to little kids.”

“It’s my accent, ja?”


“I thought so. Maybe I will record my voice and listen to my accent. I can’t hear it otherwise. Is that how to correct an accent, listening to yourself talk?”

“That may be a good way, I don’t know. That sounds reasonable.”

The black mynah bird that had given the small shop its name squawked inconsequential syllables inside the bamboo cage that hung from a low limb of the bushy umbrella tree. Gregor stood and went across the path to the red Coca-Cola cooler. He slid back the lid.

“Ah, the lady has ice today. Good, the drinks will be cold. Do you want a ginger beer, John?”


I watched as he selected a ginger beer and a cold bottle of cola sitting close to the block of ice.

The old woman came out of her grocery store with a bottle opener. She never smiled at Gregor, but she had begun to smile at me.

“If you come by here and happen to see the lady’s grandkids, why don’t you give them a little help with their English lessons, Gregor? She’ll smile for you all the time after that,” I joked.

He made a face.

“She doesn’t want to be friendly. How can she be in business if she doesn’t want to be friendly?”

“Give it a try. Help her grandson or granddaughter with their English homework. All you have to do is help them for ten minutes. Just once. Maybe twice. She’ll smile you to death after that.”

“They won’t hear my accent?”

“Of course they will, but it won’t be important. Helping them is important.”

“I will see, John. Anyway, how is your ginger beer?”

“Never mind that; tell me how in the world you got that copy of the ‘Wannsee Protocol.’  And not just a copy, but Heydrich’s copy!”

Gregor put his thin fingers around the wet bottle and looked at the table.

“The papers, they were my father’s,” he said.

Except for the unseen cicadas, there was no sound for several moments.

“My father . . . he gave them to me when I left Czechoslovakia. He wanted me to take them to Vienna. He said he didn’t want the Communists to get them. He worried about that. He said they had guilty consciences about killing Jews themselves and would probably destroy the documents. Or if not that, the papers would probably be sent to Moscow and never be seen again in the West. Also, as he had no money to give me when I went away, my father gave me the documents.  He said if I was hungry, maybe I could try to sell them in the West.”

“But how did he get them?”

“It’s an amazing story, John. I will tell you what I know . . . .”

With Gregor’s mother safely in a Catholic convent in the Sumava Mountains, his father went to Prague. He would escape to England to join the Free Czech government in exile, or he would stay in Czechoslovakia and join the resistance, he thought.

Outwardly, Prague seemed little affected by the war. But when he looked closer it was clear that it was a very different city from the one he had known in the years when he was at Charles University.

For one thing, there were fewer people, and when you met them on the streets they were clearly terrified. It had been three years since the coming of the Nazis and they had learned to turn their backs and focus their eyes on their feet whenever a military truck stopped or booted soldiers marched past. It was wise not to see anything.

It was also wise to use greater care crossing the streets, for when the Nazis took over they changed the way traffic moved. Now a part of the German Motherland, vehicles were made to drive on the right side of the road, not the left side as they had done previously. The Communists, anarchists, homosexuals, former soldiers, government employees and dissidents: they’d all been removed from the city, most of them never to be seen again.

And the Jews of Prague, they’d been taken to Thereszíenstadt, an ancient fortress town to the north, now turned into an enormous concentration camp. The new SS governor, Deputy Protector Heydrich, liked to boast that he had tamed the Czech lion. He had the Slovak animals eating out of his hand, he said.

To achieve this, he ruled with a rose in an iron fist: when he was obeyed, he handed out favors; when he was defied, he doled out death. Little wonder he came to believe he was surrounded by grateful citizens glad to have an Aryan officer, a German, adding purpose to their lives.

With his new identity, Gregor’s father visited the coffeehouses in the Old Town, and there he found he was still recognized. That would have been disturbing except that those who knew him were producing new lives on top of their pasts too. Some were Jews, most were not, but they were all sharing the same vulnerable experience and they looked older and were more fatalistic because of it.

Soon he was living a quiet life in Golden Lane, an ancient cobblestone alley of dwarf-like bungalows just below Prague Castle. Franz Kafka had lived in a cottage there. He had written The Trial at Number 22 Golden Lane. Now, with Kafka dead and the Jews gone, the Kafka house was empty and the intellectuals who still remained in the city were concerned. The house contained Kafka’s library, and it was an extensive one. And some of Kafka’s manuscripts were there as well.

Someone had asked Gregor’s father to live in the house and look after it. They might have said ‘to protect it,’ but protect would have been an inexact word, for how can one protect something in a place occupied by armed terrorists?

It was a rare opportunity, however, and Gregor’s father took the risk and accepted.

When he came to Prague he had taken a room in the workingmen’s section of Karlín and found a job in the restaurant at the Opera House. But, using the name Jan Jaroslav Svoboda, he applied at City Hall for a change of residency and permission was granted. At that moment, remaining in Prague to look after a national literary treasure seemed as legitimate a gesture as leaving Czechoslovakia to join the Free Czech Resistance Movement.

Furthermore, after all that had happened to him, to Czechoslovakia and to Europe in the past two or three years, it was rewarding to sit at Kafka’s desk in Number 22 Golden Lane reading and re-reading his handwritten manuscripts in his precise German. Sometimes after reading The Metamorphosis or The Stoker or Report to the Academy, he would have a feeling that he was Franz Kafka, and he’d walk to Staré Mesto, the Old Town, to wander past Oppelt House where Kafka had spent the first forty years of his life, living in the house of his parents.

The apartment was there, but he didn’t go near it: there was no telling whom the SS had installed in it once the Jews had been removed. Instead, he would stroll across the square to the New Jewish Cemetery in Žužkov. It helped to assure him, for the graves were there, and there they would always be: the graves of Franz, his father, and his mother. The cemetery was haunting for it was half empty: the generation that was expected to fill it was gone.

They had all been transported to death camps.

It was spring, and the weather was exceptionally mild that year. The lilacs were blooming in every park and garden, and the scent wafted over the walls and across the city roofs. Neither the oppressors nor the war could change that.

The cottage door was open, and Gregor’s father sat in Kafka’s chair with his eyes closed. He had no radio. No one had a radio. At first the only news he or anyone had was what the new government allowed them to have in their daily newspaper. But then he learned that there was a radio receiver in the center of Prague. At a coffeehouse called The Cat. Upstairs, in the top floor. Under the eaves. And he knew there was a transmitter nearby, though he had no idea where it was. He didn’t want to know. The reports from the BBC were passed along from person to person, sometimes so openly that he feared they were being too bold.

He had been to the coffeehouse early in the morning, and now he was sitting in Kafka’s worn armchair digesting the news of the day.

That’s when he heard the muffled sound of tires on cobblestones, and then the slight squeal of a car as it braked.

The engine stopped and he opened his eyes, and what he saw caused his face and hands to go cold as his blood rushed to his ankles. A shiny dark green Mercedes convertible had stopped outside his very door, and while the passenger sat motionless in the back the driver rushed to the side to open the door. An SS officer swung his legs out.

It was the first sight of those spotlessly clean polished black boots coming out of the back of the car and touching the cobblestones that would remain in his memory forever after, and then the rest of the picture would fall into place in his mind: the large green car with its top down, the bright hub caps gleaming in the sunlight, the sound of the car door being opened . . . . And the officer in black, his visored hat firmly placed on his head so that it created a dark shadow across his eyes, a general’s baton in his hands.

He stood staring directly into the open doorway at Number 22, and then he took two steps and was at the door.

“Rudolph II put his alchemists in these houses to find the secrets of making gold,” the officer said, his voice unnaturally high-pitched for such a tall man. “Tell me, did they find the answer?”

He lowered his head and stepped into the room.

“Are there any secrets to be discovered here?”

The man sitting in the chair had no reply. His mouth moved, but he had no ability to speak.

The officer’s head didn’t move, but his eyes had swept every corner of the small room, and now they peered straight into the eyes of Gregor’s father. The eyes boring into him were the most frigid ones he had ever seen. There was not one shred of life behind them. He was tall, for he almost touched the ceiling, and his face, so young-looking for such a man, was absolutely rigid: it could have been cast in bronze or plaster. He had an elongated nose that seemed to start well above his eyebrows, and his voice was as from another world.

“So the Jew Kafka lived here,” he said, taking two more steps and moving into the room.

His thin lips scarcely moved, and his cold eyes seemed to pierce Gregor’s father’s head and pin it to the back of his chair.

“Show me his manuscripts!” he commanded.

Gregor’s father had to force his body from the chair, and he virtually limped across the room to a glass-fronted bookcase. None of his movements were natural; he had to send instructions to his arms and legs to make them move. He fumbled for the key, pulled it from a pocket in his trousers, and opened the doors. Leaving the key in the lock, he stepped back to the chair and leaned his weight against it.

The German moved forward and stood in silence looking at the rows of books until his eyes focused on two large notebooks on the middle shelf. His hands clasped his baton in front of him.  He wore tight black leather gloves, so tight they seemed to be part of him. He pursed his mouth and pulled them off, grasping them and his baton under his left elbow. He reached forward.

In der Strafkolonie,” he said, taking out In The Penal Colony and opening the cover. He turned the pages and read for a moment.

“Excellent German script. Quite excellent,” he said, slowly turning the pages.

“He handles books with reverence,” Gregor’s father thought . . . “How incongruous.”

He still felt drained of blood and could think of little else.

The German turned his head and looked at the man before him with those same unfeeling blue eyes.  “What words would die Egge, the Harrow, inscribe on the back of a Jew, Jan Jaroslav Svoboda?” he asked, starring him squarely in the face, his eyes unblinking.  Getting no reply, he proposed an answer himself. “Honor thy superiors?  Is that what the Harrow would write?”

Gregor’s father could not speak. He gazed into the face of the man standing before him, his heart pounding, his mind racing, but his lips refusing to move. The German stiffened and turned the pages of the manuscript.

“Well then, if you can’t say, maybe you would know what words the machine would inscribe on the back of a German.”

Be just?” Gregor’s father replied suddenly, and after he had spoken he couldn’t believe he’d said the words. The voice he heard within his head didn’t sound like his voice.

“We are just. Genetic determinism is just,” the German answered while staring at the pitiful figure of a man tilted against the chair.

“Where are his other manuscripts? There are too few here.”

Gregor’s father heard the same odd voice in his head.

“They are in Palestine. I understand that is where they were taken.”

Those cold eyes bore into him again.

“Max Brod,” the German officer said matter-of-factly.

Gregor’s father nodded. Max Brod had been Kafka’s best friend. He left Prague after Kafka died and before the Nazis arrived, taking with him a great many of Kafka’s manuscripts, letters, and diaries.  What few remained in Prague were on those shelves. But there weren’t many.

“Did Kafka play the violin?” the German asked, looking across the room where a violin and bow were on an oak table.

“I don’t think so. The violin is mine,” Gregor’s father answered.

The German moved over and picked it up.

“An Otto,” he said, examining it carefully and nodding his head. His long white fingers plucked the strings casually, and then he put his baton and gloves on the table and took off his hat with the skull and crossbones emblem on it. He placed it carefully on top of his gloves and picked up the bow, raised the violin to his chin, and began to play the slow movement of Beethoven’s violin concerto. He played it beautifully, flawlessly . . . .

“Surely this is not true,” Gregor’s father was thinking. “Surely this is not happening . . . .”

The German was facing him with his eyes closed. His strokes with the bow were precise and absolute.

The music filled the room and flooded out through the open door. It was loud and it was magnificent, but there would be no danger of a crowd forming on the walk to listen, Gregor’s father thought. The presence of the green Mercedes was a guarantee of that.

The music continued for several minutes, and then it abruptly ceased.  The German took the violin from under his chin and held it to his side.

“We will get the manuscripts back,” he suddenly announced. “This will be a museum, so we will need his manuscripts and letters here. They serve no purpose being in Palestine.”

He put the violin gently down, set the bow beside it, and took up his hat.

“You know who I am, do you not, Jan Jaroslav Svoboda?” he asked while resetting his hat on his head.

Gregor’s father nodded.

“You are Reinhard Heydrich, Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia,” he answered.

The cold eyes stared into him once again.

“The Führer has ordered a museum to be established here in Prague,” the German said, pulling on his gloves. “It will be a museum to preserve the memorabilia, artifacts, and possessions of an extinct race, the Jews. You, Jan Jaroslav Svoboda, will establish a Treuhandstelle, a committee, to collect and store books, papers, liturgical  objects, documents, charters, works of Jewish artists, manuscripts of Jewish writers including fictionneedlework, embroidery, sewing, scrolls, and any other objects or material directly or indirectly relating to the Jewish race,” the German said, speaking without drawing a breath.

“Beginning tomorrow, you and the Jewish Treuhandstelle will begin preparations to receive, classify, and archive the material confiscated in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia at the Pinkas Synagogue. In days to come, you will liaise with my office to identify and sort material coming to you from Poland and Germany, including etchings and paintings recently confiscated from Jewish homes and museums in those areas.

“The synagogues of Praguethe Maisel, the Vysoká, the Klaus, the Staronová, the Maisel, the Spanish and the Pinkaswill be opened to you for the sole purpose of storing these and other artifacts. You will provide me with weekly lists, which shall be put into my files until we have a complete registration of all items and they are satisfactorily catalogued . . . . You have some questions?”

Surely something had happened to him and he had become absorbed into Kafka’s world. He was like one of Kafka’s insects on the wall, or he was one of his great moles burrowing in the garden.  How could it be otherwise?

No, he had no questions for the German because he knew there were no answers. He nodded his head slowly and painfully from side to side.

“Tomorrow you will have six Jews from Teresín to assist you. They are art experts. They will remain with you until the project is completed. They will be at Pinkas Synagogue with 14,000 works of children’s art, watercolors, and crayon drawings done in recent weeks in Theresíenstadt. You will begin by tabulating the pictures according to size and to the age of the child. In the next days, you will receive shipments of children’s art from other camps. We shall progress from there.”

He stepped into the doorway, put on his hat, and tapped his baton to his visor. His chauffeur leapt from the driver’s seat to open the car’s rear door.

“Pinkas Synagogue. Tomorrow. Nine A.M.,” the German said as he settled in the back seat. He nodded, and his driver started the car’s engine. And just at that moment, a passing crow flew low and shit on the car’s immaculately polished hood. The white stuff dribbled down the side of the hood as the car backed out of Golden Lane.

Gregor’s father stood in the doorway and asked himself a rhetorical question:  “Was that a stray crow . . . or was that one of Kafka’s?”

* * * * *

Five weeks later, at the very moment that three million men from Hitler’s armies were marching into Russia, the German returned to Zlata Ulicka, as Gregor’s father called it . . . to Alchimistengasse, as the German called it.

To Gregor, it was Golden Lane.

There wasn’t anyone in the coffeehouses who hadn’t heard about the first meeting with the German, or of its purpose, and the information had been immediately transmitted to the Czech government-in-exile in London. A sombre Prague circle waited to hear the world’s reaction to word that the Nazis were about to create a museum to accommodate the artifacts of a race of people they were about to make extinct. But there was no news. The BBC and the American networks remained absolutely silent on the matter.

Gregor’s father had scarcely begun the job of tabulating and stockpiling the pages upon pages of children’s crayon and pencil drawings that were coming to Pinkas Synagogue when he found himself overwhelmed with containers of rare religious books, crates of silver circumcision implements, cases of Torah mantles and rimonim, and carton upon carton of prayer vestments. From the very first day, he and the Jews sent to him by Heydrich found it impossible keep up with the inundation of goods, all of it from synagogues and Jewish museums the Nazis had closed in Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.

And then artifacts began arriving from Belgium, The Netherlands, from France . . . .

He was at the kitchen sink preparing to shave when the green Mercedes stopped at Number 22 Golden Lane a second time. He had removed his beard since returning to Prague to take a new identity, and the process of manipulating a straight razor continued to elude him. He rarely managed to get the task done unscathed, and in recent days he had moved to Kafka’s small kitchen to do it where the light was better.

It was early in the morning, and he had just brushed lather onto his face when the knock came. His door was closed and bolted.

Wearing a full beard of soapy froth, he unbolted the door and swung it open . . . and then he fell back as though lunged at by a viper.

“Good,” the German said, striding into the room. “I am on my way to my office, but I have information. And I have photos and a manuscript for our Kafka museum. Also, I have two Kafka books.”

He moved across the room and put a brown rectangular photo album on the table. Then he strode over to the bookcase with the glass doors.

“The key . . . ,” he said flatly, and stepped aside while Gregor’s father searched in his pockets and eventually got the key out and put it in the lock. It hadn’t become any easier moving in this man’s presence, even though they had spoken briefly inside the Pinkas Synagogue three days earlier when the German had ventured over from his office to hand him a manifest of goods about to arrive by rail from Gdansk.

“I have a copy of Das Schloss, The Castle. It is like new, printed in Leipzig in 1925, and . . . .” He looked at Gregor’s father as though expecting a joyful reaction.

“ . . . And,” he dragged the word out a second time, “I have a like-new 1916 edition of Das Verwandlung, The Metamorphosis . . . .”

If the German was capable of a smile, he may have been attempting one. It wasn’t easy to tell because his thin lips were always set in a straight line. He held the book up for a moment so Gregor’s father could view it, then he put it carefully in the bookcase.

“Apropos of our past conversation seeking words for a Jew to programme for himself in die Egge, it occurs to me that `Self satisfaction will be punished’ would be a suitable choice,” he said, carefully opening both the glass doors.

“Those are Kafka’s words, found in one of his own notebooks. Here, I have these several pages from it in his handwriting.”

He looked into and through the face of the man before him. His eyes were so lacking in feeling they might as well have been made of glass. He put the notebook pages on a shelf in the bookcase and then turned the small key in the lock, removed it, and slipped it into a pocket of his tunic.

Once again, Gregor’s father was baffled by this German with the youthful face and high voice.  As was his habit when confronted by someone he couldn’t understand, he tried imagining this six-foot tall blond man as a suckling infant pressed to his mother’s breast.

When that didn’t help put the German into perspective, he tried imagining him naked, except for his socks, sitting on a flowered chamber pot.

The German stared back, studying his faceor what he could see of it lurking behind the mound of shaving soap. After several long seconds he turned abruptly and strode back to the table. His boots hit the floor hard and the wooden planks squeaked.

“Kafka’s three sisters have been moved to Lodz,” he said stiffly. “They had several photos that will be of interest here.”

Still wearing his gloves, he reached down and opened the cover of the album. “These, they are two photos of Felice Baurer,” he gestured. “She and Kafka were in Berlin together in 1914. They were engaged. In fact they were engaged twice.”

He turned the page.

“And this. This is a photo Kafka sent to her. It is of him when he was a child. On the reverse he says he is five years of age, which he wasn’t. He was perhaps one or two. I have children of my own, I would know.”

He turned the page.

“This one,” he pointed to another photo, “is Melena Jesenska-Polak, his married friend from Poland. She was not a Jew.”

He paused.

“And this one,” he said, jabbing at a photo with a finger. “It is of Kafka at Matliary Sanatorium where he was confined with tuberculosis in 1921. These photos, they will be part of the Kafka exhibit . . . .”

He suddenly flipped the album shut with a quick stab of his gloved finger and stared at the table.

“Where is the Otto violin?”

Gregor’s father stood beside Kafka’s chair. He felt the blood leaving his face for his ankles again.

“I have misplaced it,” he managed to say, his chin and the mound of shaving froth moving simultaneously. “But I am sure I will locate it soon.”

The German’s lips remained tight, but Gregor’s father thought he saw a change in his eyes. There was a flicker. Was it a look of disappointment? Maybe it was, maybe not. It was probably a projection on his part.

Then the spark was gone and the German looked away and pulled at his gloves.

“The number of articles for the Führer’s Jewish museum is mounting daily. We will have a train arriving from the East shortly,” he said in his high-pitched voice.

“It will be necessary for you to come to my office next week to get a list of places that are being prepared to receive the goods. I am currently vetting fifty Prague warehouses that will be used for storage. Our new front in the East has been a success, and obviously we will begin receiving vast quantities of Jewish material from there in due course. You must be prepared . . . .”

He left, forgetting to put the photo album into the bookcase, and he had the only key to it tucked into his top pocket. Gregor’s father reminded himself that he would have to see about getting another one made.

Bolting the door and returning to the kitchen sink, he studied his eyes in the mirror. The beard of shaving soap had hardened on his face. He looked ridiculous.

“Of course you are excited to find a couple of Kafka’s books,” he groused, as though the German was still in the room. “So few survive.  For the past ten years you have been burning all his books . . . .”

The German’s final visit to the house on Golden Lane came the following spring, in May, at a time when the lilacs were again in bloom throughout Prague. It was late afternoon. The slight squeak of the brakes as the green Mercedes convertible stopped at the house, the rap of the baton on the door . . . .

In his left hand he carried a black briefcase, and in his right hand he had a violin case, a slightly battered one that Gregor’s father immediately recognized as his own.

The German bowed his head to avoid the low doorframe and strode quickly across the room to put the violin in its familiar place on the table. He undid the two latches with a dramatic flair and opened the case.

“Your Otto,” he said, stepping back.

“Thank you,” Gregor’s father nodded. “It was foolish of me to have misplaced it. I must have been . . . .”

“Foolish, yes. It was located last night at a coffeehouse called The Cat,” the German interrupted. “You are fortunate you were not there at the time your violin was found, Jan Jaroslav Svoboda.  Our agents uncovered a radio and a transmitter there, and we have arrested the Czech traitors who have been using it to send messages to England. They will be executed, of course.”

His eyes burrowed deeply into those of Gregor’s father, who had been training himself before a mirror not to react to anything the German said.  Emulating the German’s vacuous gaze, he stared at the tall man’s forehead where it met his cap, and he allowed no thought to enter his mind except to think how very young the man was. Thirty-six or seven, he had been told . . . .

The German bent down and picked up his briefcase to put it on the table next to the violin.

“There will come a time when our work here will be finished, and what we have accomplished will be scrutinized from all sides. By historians and scholars, among others,” he said, placing the briefcase upright and holding it tightly between gloved fingers.

“Academicians will surmise that there had to have been a genesis, as indeed there was.”

He began to undo two leather straps and pulled them carefully out of the buckles that held them.

“Eventually they will be forced to acknowledge that it was an idea whose time had come, and they will think upon the responsible individuals with respect and admiration. But acknowledging the correctness of our plan without knowing the details of it would not be faithful to German history, for it is in our character to search until we know all. We are a cultured people.

“To be sure, while the Führer’s museum will be enlightening, there will come a time when our entire programme will be put under a microscope and questions will be asked: How did the plan come about? What man was involved, or were there many? And if there was but a single individual responsible for carrying out the National Socialists’ concept of a Jew-free planet, who was he?

“In that world of the future, of course, there will be no Jews, for with the Jews of Europe gone who would care to be the last Jew? Guilt will see to it that none survive.”

He looked into Gregor’s father’s eyes.

“Ask yourself: What man could live with the knowledge that he was the last Jew?”

Gregor’s father put his weight against Kafka’s armchair and held his breath. He watched transfixed as the German pulled the sides of his briefcase and opened it and then reached in and took out a packet of papers.

“In that world of the future, scientists, sociologists, historians, politicians, bankers, businessmenand yes, anthropologiststhey will gather, as they do, and they will view an entirely changed world. They will approve, and in time they will ask an important question: who set the wheels in motion?”

He moved slowly, taking out two or three large envelopes and placing them on the table.

“The answers will be here,” he said. “There has been a meeting in Berlin, and the solution has been approved.  Die Endlösung has begun . . . .”

He closed his briefcase and began to buckle it.

“These papers will remain in the bookcase,” he said, taking them up and going across the room.  He had the only key, and he opened the glass doors to place the papers among Kafka’s books.

“For history,” he nodded.

Then he locked the doors and again put the key into his top pocket.

“I shall return the day after tomorrow, at eight o’clock sharp,” the German said, “bringing a numbered Kafka book found in a Warsaw booksellers. Unfortunately, I left it at my home. The business at The Cat detained me or I would have had it delivered to you today.”

He lifted his right hand to adjust his hat, turned, then marched out the open doorway. His driver jumped from his position behind the wheel of the Mercedes to open the rear door, the car’s engine was started, it was put into reverse . . . .

And then the German was gone.

Gregor’s father exhaled deeply and slowly sat down in Kafka’s armchair. If it was to be done, he thought, it must be done tomorrow . . . .

* * * * *

In a quiet corner of a park in the English Midlands, in the pleasant Georgian town of Royal Leamington Spa, there is a fountain and a children’s wading pond. Water flows slowly off the curved top of it to dribble down in long, slender streams. If one looks closely, he becomes aware that the thin streams represent silk cords, and the water is actually flowing over a representation of a billowing parachute.

And engraved on the scallops of the parachute are the names of the seven Czech resistance fighters who returned to Czechoslovakia one day in January 1942 to assassinate the Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Tristan Heydrich. The eighth man, the one who disclosed to the Czech commandos the exact route and the precise hour that the German would be passing by in an unguarded open car, has never been revealed. And his name is certainly not engraved on the fountain in Royal Leamington Spa.

The seven Czechs had been in that Warwickshire town for several weeks undergoing commando training. Soon after the Czech government-in-exile in London had received information from Prague that a museum was to be established to contain the relics of an extinct Jewish race, the decision was made to have the men flown home to kill the German.

In retrospect, it was naive to think that the project could have been halted by the killing of a single German, but nonetheless that is what they believed. And one moonless night after the decision was made, the members of the Czech resistance climbed into an unmarked Halifax bomber manned by a Canadian crew at Coventry Airport and headed for a prearranged drop site near the small village of Ležáky in the countryside north of Prague.

To improve their chance of success, the parachutists had divided themselves into three groups called Silver A, Anthropoid, and Silver B, and after a suitable interval the leader of Anthropoid had met with Gregor’s father and it was arranged that a coded message would be left on a photo shop message board when and if he had further information relevant to their mission.

As it happened, there was none for some time. But the day after the Gestapo’s raid on The Cat coffeehouse, Gregor’s father pinned a message to the board at the photo shop and immediately went to Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral to wait. Apparently one of the Czechs had been a choirboy there and he knew its arrangement.

At sunset, all seven of the group members showed up, coming into the nave one by one to sit in scattered pews. Contact with Gregor’s father was quickly made, and they retreated to the wardrobe room behind the altar where they huddled. Their voices were muffled by the vestments and choral garments hanging from racks surrounding them.

Gregor’s  father told them of the German’s visit the previous afternoon, and he presented a plan. In general, he said, the intrepid German traveled around the city in his Mercedes without an escort, routinely following the same route to and from his offices at Prague Castle six days a week.

“Alone, with only his driver,” he emphasized.

Time and again the German had boasted that he had nothing to fear because the Czechs had come to appreciate his authority.

“Even dogs,” he had written in a note to his wife that Gregor’s father was to find in the packet of pages he had left in the bookcase at Golden Lane, “seeing how much better we do things than they do, have become subservient.”

Taking a blank page from the back of a missal lying on a table, Gregor’s father sketched a map of the route the German’s car would be taking. To change course from the main thoroughfare to Golden Lane, he said, the driver would have to make a sharp turn at a particular junction. And to do this, the car would have to slow to a virtual crawl. That intersection, he said, would be an ideal place to carry out their plan.

The Czechs agreed, and it was decided that the Anthropoid group of Jozef Gabk and Jan Kubiš would be waiting at that corner the following morning. They said their farewells, shook hands, and Gregor’s father returned to 22 Golden Lane. The Czechs remained in the church: they found its large empty basement a perfect sanctuary.

Dawn broke with a hazy sky and a slight mist at ground level, but it promised to be a mild and pleasant day. The men from the Czech resistance had not slept at all that night, and at day’s first light Gabk left the church to walk alone to the selected site. He had a British officer’s automatic pistol inside his jacket and a hand grenade in each of its pockets. Kubiš waited several minutes more before getting on a priest’s bicycle he had found in the back courtyard. Under his coat he had a Czech pistol given to him in England by an officer in the Czech resistance.

Neither man had any doubt of their plan’s success.

At eight minutes to the hour, Gabk was walking slowly along on the sidewalk and Kubiš was in the boulevard cycling toward the intersection at a leisurely pace. And then the green car appeared, moving a little too fast. The driver double-clutched, then braked hard to make the turn. In the back, the German put a hand up to the side of the door for support. At his feet was his briefcase, and on his lap was a book. He clutched the book as the car swung to the right.

It happened much quicker than either of the Czechs imagined it would.

Gabk pulled out his pistol and dashed toward the car and began shooting wildly into the back seat. Kubiš wasn’t in the position he wanted to be in. He jumped from the bicycle, dropping it against the curb. Pulling out his pistol as he ran, he began shooting at the driver. Then he stopped shooting because he saw Gabk in his line of fire on the opposite side of the car.

The car seemed to lurch forward with a roar, and at that same moment he could see Gabk pulling a grenade from his jacket and throwing it into the back seat. He was thinking they were much too close for that, and he dropped to the ground as the grenade exploded. The earth shook and the car stopped. He rose to his knees clutching his pistol. He expected to see a dead German, but to his amazement the German had pushed open the battered rear door of the car and was standing before him, his pistol in one hand, a book in the other.

Bullets began hitting the cobblestones on either side of him, and Kubiš raised his pistol to fire. But it jammed. He pulled the trigger and nothing happened. He was on his knees in the centre of the road with the German less than five metres away.

“You . . . you Jewish swine!” the German screamed in his high-pitched voice.

He steadied himself and leveled his pistol at Kubiš’s head.

“Don’t you know who I am?” he cried out.

His words reverberated between the stone buildings, and their echo seemed to come back louder. His hat with the shiny brim and the skull and crossbones insignia was in the road at his feet, and he ground his teeth together, aimed his gun, and pulled the trigger.

But his gun jammed too.

“You Jewish pig,” he cried, and he began to wobble.  “You . . . you . . . .

And then he planted his feet apart, raised his left arm and leaned back, and threw the book at Kubiš. It hit him in his chest and dropped to the road.

Kubiš looked at it in astonishment. It was the like-new 1919 edition of Kafka’s Report to the Academy that the German was about to deliver to Golden Lane.

And then, inexplicably, a song ran through Kubiš’s brain, one he had heard through an open window once while passing a country church in England: “Jesus wants you for a sunbeam.”

* * * * *

Sitting in the shade under the umbrella tree, we were both wet with sweat. However much we drank, liquid seemed to bubble out of us as fast as we downed it.

With Gregor’s words still lingering in my head, I stepped up to the cooler to get two more cold bottles of soda.

“So, you see, John, my father was the eighth man,” Gregor said quietly as I sat down and put a wet bottle of cola before him. He raised it, about to take a sip.

Ach jo,” he said quietly. “Ach jo,” he said again, but then he remained silent.

“So, your father was in the underground,” I said slowly.

“Oh, no,” he shook his head. “Not in the underground. He just happened to be there and to know things.”

He sipped loudly.

“I only learned about these things I’ve told you when I was at university. He told me he was there, and he said he knew about the radio transmitter. And he knew the Czechs who came back from England. He told me about the day they shot Heydrich.”

“They killed him, I take it?”

“No. He was like a Cheung Chau centipede that you can cut into a hundred pieces and they all run off in a different direction. And you still can’t kill it, you know. Heydrich was like that.  They shot him and bombed him, and he still didn’t die.

“But the two Czechs thought he was dead, and they ran away and took alleys and so forth to get back to the church. Eventually someone took Heydrich to Balovka Hospital, and then all the top Nazis from Berlin came to Prague, and Heydrich still wouldn’t die. He had bullets and pieces of the grenade in him, but for seven or eight days more he lived.

“But finally he died, of course. Of infections. Pieces of the upholstery from his car were in his wounds.”

Gregor nodded. “And pieces of his uniform. It was the dyes in his uniform that did it. They infected him. That killed him.”

“And the Czechs?”

“The Gestapo found the bicycle in the street,” he said slowly. “Everything like that was registered with the police so it was easy to find out who owned it. It was a girl’s bicycle, belonging to a priest. So they went to Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral to talk to the priest, and all the Czechs were there. In the basement. So the SS came, hundreds of them. They came and shot them.

“That’s all,” he said. “That was the end.”

He took out a bent cigarette and I pushed my lighter across the table.

“The Nazis were furious, of course,” Gregor continued. “They killed more than a thousand men in Prague because of Heydrich’s death, and Hitler went crazy and said he’d get even with the Czech people. He said he would wipe a Czech town off the map forever.

“First they had the state funeral for Heydrich, and then the SS trucks went to Lidice, a small village just a little to the north of Prague, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes away by car. The SS rounded up all the men in the village and put them in a barn, and then they burned it down.  When the men tried to escape, the SS shot them. There were nearly two hundred men in the barn.

“All the women of the village were taken away and put in concentration camps, and their children were taken to Germany. No one knows what happened to them. Almost all the women died in the camps. Only a few survived.

“Lidice was blown up and then tractors came and leveled what was left, and in the end there was no more village. When Hitler’s SS were done, there was nothing left. Not a living person, not a chicken or a duck or a pig. Not even a brick.

“And they also did the same thing to the little village of Ležáky. When it was over, they killed more than five thousand Czechs because of Heydrich.”

“But your father?”

“No one knew. He was a Jew, and no one knew it. He was the eighth man, and no one knew it.  All through the war he stayed in Prague doing the work that Heydrich had left him to do, collecting Jewish things and piling them up in the seven synagogues and fifty warehouses. One by one, the Jews sent to work with him were taken away. They didn’t survive.  Only my father survived.”

He paused a long while and looked toward a pink and red pagoda across the path.

“You see,” he finally spoke, “I had just been born. I was a baby, and my father wanted to see Heydrich gone. He had to do that, he told me, because of what the German was doing.

“And because, he said to me, he didn’t want me to be the last Jew on earth . . . .”

John Bell Smithback About John Bell Smithback

John Bell Smithback is a former teacher and newspaper columnist living in Bellingham, Washington. He has published more than 50 books defining English idioms and proverbs for an international audience, as well as The Lonely Dark, a novel about America in the age of the atomic bomb, and Silent in the Dawn, a collection of poems. In his early years he lived in the Monterey, California house where John Steinbeck once wrote and where he met friends from Steinbeck’s time.


  1. John,
    Your superb story should be published widely; it will resonate with history buffs, particularly. Congrats! – John

    • Coming from an internationally recognized Monterey Peninsula photographer / writer whose photographs have recently been selected by Queen Elizabeth II to be displayed in Buckingham Palace, these are words of praise indeed. I don’t know if John Livingstone knew John Steinbeck, but he certainly knew many of John’s friends. Thank you John.

Speak Your Mind