The World That We Knew - Alice Hoffman
EAST OF THE SUN
BERLIN, SPRING 1941
IF YOU DO NOT BELIEVE in evil, you are doomed to live in a world you will never understand. But if you do believe, you may see it everywhere, in every cellar, in every tree, along streets you know and streets you’ve never been on before. In the world that we knew, Hanni Kohn saw what was before her. She would do whatever she must to save those she loved, whether it was right or wrong, permitted or forbidden. Her husband, Simon, was murdered on a winter afternoon during a riot outside the Jewish Hospital on Iranische Strasse, which was miraculously still functioning despite the laws against the Jews. He had spent the afternoon saving two patients’ lives by correcting the flow of blood to their hearts, then at a little past four, as a light snow was falling, he was killed by a gang of thugs. They stole the wedding ring from his finger and the boots from his feet. His wife was not allowed to go to the cemetery and bury him, instead his remains were used for animal feed. Hanni tore at her clothes, as tradition dictated; she covered the mirrors in their apartment and sat in mourning with her mother and daughter for seven days. During his time as a doctor Simon Kohn had saved 720 souls. Perhaps on the day that he left Olam HaZeh, the world that we walk through each living day, those who had been saved were waiting for him in Olam HaBa, the World to Come. Perhaps his treatment there, under the eyes of God, was that which he truly deserved. As for Hanni, there was not enough room in the world for the grief that she felt.
In Berlin evil came to them slowly and then all at once. The rules changed by the hour, the punishments grew worse, and the angel in the black coat wrote down so many names in his Book of Death there was no room for the newly departed. Each morning people needed to check the ever-changing list of procedures to see what they were allowed to do. Jews were not allowed to have pets or own radios or telephones. Representatives from the Jewish community center had recently gone through the neighborhood asking people to fill out forms with their names and addresses, along with a list of all of their belongings, including their underwear, their pots and pans, their silverware, the paintings on the walls, the nightgowns in their bureau drawers, their pillows, the rings on their fingers. The government said they must do so in order for proper records of valuables to be made during a time of reorganization under the Nazi regime, but this was not the reason. It was easy to lie to people who still believed in the truth. Only days afterward, each person who had filled out this list was deported to a death camp.
As the months passed, the world became smaller, no larger than one’s own home. If you were lucky, a couch, a chair, a room became the world. Now, as spring approached, Jewish women were no longer allowed on the street except for the hour between four and five in the afternoon. They filed out of their houses all at once, stars sewn to their coats, searching for food in a world where there was no food, with no money to buy anything, and yet they lingered in the blue air, startled by the new leaves on the trees, stunned to discover that in this dark world spring had come again.
On this day, Hanni was among them. But she was not looking to buy anything. That was not where fate had led her. In a matter of months, Hanni had become a thief. She was fairly certain that her crimes wouldn’t stop there, and if people wished to judge her, let them. She had a mother who was unable to leave her bed due to paralysis and a twelve-year-old daughter named Lea, who was too smart for her age, as many children now were. She looked out the window and saw there were demons in the trees. The stories Hanni’s mother had told her as a child had now been told to Lea. They were tales to tell when children needed to know not all stories ended with happiness. Girls were buried in the earth by evil men and their teeth rose up through the mud and became white roses on