She was gone all afternoon, perhaps searching for a Jewish lover, and I spent the time reading, loafing, soaking in a hot tub. We had venison steaks for dinner; a friend of Kurt’s had shot a deer in one of the government forests, and Kurt had bought three filets to celebrate my speech to the Bund.
“We must celebrate in advance,” he said, “because you and Greta will want to leave immediately after.”
We walked to the Bund meeting around seven-thirty. It was held in the basement of a Lutheran church about half a mile from the Neumann house. We slipped in through a back entrance, marched single file down a long darkened flight of stairs, and emerged in a room full of old Germans.
It was a shock. I had expected a beer hall full of bristling young Storm Troopers, and instead I found myself in what looked like an old folks’ home in Yorkville. The median age was somewhere between fifty-five and sixty. Around seventy-five men and women sat in straight-backed chairs and talked companionably to one another in German, pausing now and then to refill their glasses from the beer keg at the rear of the room. They reminded me, more than anything else, of the American Communist Party – a handful of old fossils living on dreams of past glory, and about as much of a revolutionary force as a librarians’ conference in Emporia.
“Evan? You seem surprised.”
“It is nothing, Herr Neumann.”
“Perhaps you expected more younger members? Not at the Bund, I am sorry to say. Of course we have the German Youth League for our schoolchildren. They go hiking and camping and win prizes for physical fitness. No Hitler Youth by any means, but we do what we can.”
I took a seat near the back of the room, with Greta on one side and her father on the other. We were close to the beer keg, which was fortunate, because the first hour of the meeting was intolerable. There was an insufficiently brief speech of welcome by the chairman, a reading of the minutes of the previous meeting, a secretary’s report on correspondence with other Bunds, a treasurer’s report on the state of the organization’s finances and the lethargy of some members in paying their annual dues, and, finally, a long address by a doddering white-haired gentleman on the current state of the German business community in Mexico City. Some relative had written him an overlong letter on the subject, and the old fool stood up there and read it to us, inserting his own parenthetical remarks from time to time.
Throughout all of this ritual, the audience paid only cursory attention to what was going on in the front of the room. Everyone was drinking and nearly everyone was chatting, with individuals pausing from time to time to assure themselves that the meeting was still officially in progress. At first it was comforting to note that Nazism wasn’t quite the menace nowadays the Police Gazette might give one to understand, but as the evening wore on I began to grow annoyed at the towering wave of apathy which flowed over everyone in the room. If they were going to be Nazis, I thought, they at least ought to work at it.
When the old white-haired man finally reached the end of his letter he smiled apologetically and sat down to the same smattering of polite applause that had greeted everything, even the statement that the Bund was several thousand koruna in the red. I was irritated. There ought to be a way to reach these people, to get them moving one way or another. They were, after all, political extremists. Revolutionaries, if you will. They were not supposed to act and react like a Rotary Club.
“And now,” the chairman was saying, “I have the honor to introduce a distinguished Party member from America who has come all this way to talk to us about the greater ramifications of the problems of Germans in Czechoslovakia. Herr Evan Tanner.”
Inevitable polite applause.
I walked down the aisle, took my place at the podium. I had my speech all planned, an innocuous ten-minute affair lauding the contributions of Germans to the culture of the world and of Sudeten Germans to the growth of Germany, lamenting the poor state of Germans in Czechoslovakia, and calling for unification of East and West Germany with the nation enlarged to include German areas of Czechoslovakia. The usual pap, and I’m sure it would have gone over well enough, drawing occasional moments of attentiveness from segments of my audience and ending, predictably enough, in a round of polite applause.
But something happened.
“Brothers, sisters, fellow Germans-”
The proper opening. But I paused then, and held the pause, and the conversations died down and eyes were drawn to me. My heels clicked, my arm shot up and out, and my voice rang out: “Heil Hitler!”
The response was about fifteen seconds delayed. They were out of practice, but they had been properly conditioned and I had rung the right bell; they had to salivate. The roar came back – Heil Hitler! – not as loud as it might have been, not raising the rafters, but loud enough and firm enough to get the ball rolling.
“I look around,” I shouted, “and what do I see? I see Germans. I see Germans living in a strange land. I see Germans ground into the dust by the heel of a foreign oppressor. And who is the oppressor? The Czech! Who is behind the Czech? The Russian! And what villain pulls the Russian’s strings? The Jew!”
More eyes were on me. I realized suddenly that no one had gone for beer since I began to speak. Either the keg had gone suddenly dry or I was actually beginning to reach these people.
“ Germany has been torn in half,” I cried. “She lies bleeding from a wound that leaves her in pieces, one half a pawn for the Jews of Wall Street, the other a police state under the thumb of the godless Hebrew Bolshevists of Moscow. And Berlin, the grandest city in the world, is an island in a turbulent sea with the indignity of a wall down its spine. And what of Austria? A German country ripped away from Germany, as the rest of the world tries to undo one of the Fuehrer’s greatest accomplishments. Do you know what they say throughout the world? Do you know what they say? They say that Germany is dead!”
I dropped my voice to a murmur. “Is Germany dead?”
They expected me to answer it myself. I didn’t. I let the question hang in the air, and finally a few adventurous souls said, “No.”
“Is Germany dead?”
“I ask you, is the Fatherland dead?”
A roar this time: “No.”
“No?” I held out my hands, palms open. I turned my head slowly and gazed at every member of my audience in turn. “No? If Germany lives, if the Fatherland still breathes, you could not prove it by the state of our countrymen in this land they call Czechoslovakia. For everywhere I go I see our people downtrodden. Everywhere I go I see their children taught to speak Czech, taught by a government of Jews and Communists to forget their nation, to repudiate their name, to reject the fact that they are German. Are you Germans?”
I shudder to remember the rest. There was a great deal more of it, all equally inane, as I and my audience moved inexorably to a fever pitch. Men were on their feet now, shouting the appropriate responses. One old woman grabbed at her chest and pitched over on her face. A heart attack, probably. No one went to her rescue. They were too caught up in my words. They hadn’t had a night like this since the Russian tanks freed Prague.
And I knew I should stop, knew that the situation was rapidly getting out of hand. A quick shift in tone, an inspirational ending, an appeal for funds or something of the sort, would have let me end it on a lower note. I knew this was the way to do it, but I had hold of something and couldn’t let it go. I was a conductor and they were the orchestra, and the score called for crescendo straight through to the coda, and that was what they were going to get.
I cursed the Czech merchants who were sucking the lifeblood of the German populace. I cursed the Czech officials who were raping German culture. I called for vengeance, and I told them that they would have to take vengeance themselves, and all at once I was demanding action now, not in the hereafter, not sometime in the future, but now.
“Out! Out! Out into the streets, out to meet the enemy! Meet him with fists, meet him with rocks, meet him with crowbars! Smash his windows and burn his houses! Out into the streets!”
And out they went. In a swarming furious mob, some hobbling on canes, some limping with arthritis, some blinking idiotically through bifocals. An old man broke up a card chair and brandished one of its legs as a club. A pair of women forced the door of the German Youth League’s storeroom and passed out baseball bats and hockey sticks and Indian clubs. Off they went, into the streets, out to meet the enemy.
I ran up the stairs after them. On both sides of the street old men and women were heaving rocks and smashing windows. To my left two men had a Czech policeman by the arms while a woman beat him over the head with a chair leg. Further down the block a house was in flames.
Madness reigned. There were police sirens in the distance. Greta ran to me, threw her arms around my neck, kissed me. Kurt was pumping my hand furiously. “You are a hero,” he shouted. “You have forged us into an army. Pisek will remember this day.”
“So will I.”
“But you must go now, you and Greta. And hurry! You have business in Prague. Hurry!”
“Just run! The police will be here any moment. You cannot be caught; your work is too important. Both of you, run!”
We ran. We ran blindly, through the mob, away from the mob, down one street, around a corner, down another street. A third of the way down the block the sidewalk was thronged with a wedding procession. Men and women lined church steps, heaving things at a Czech bridal couple. A squat car waited for them at the curb, its engine running, a sign on the trunk lid announcing that they were newlyweds.
The groom, beaming foolishly, held the door for his bride. Greta snatched the girl by the arms, yanked her back, and pitched her into the crowd. The groom gaped. I hit him on the side of the chin, tucked Greta into the car, raced around it, hopped behind the wheel, and we were off.
We had about a block’s head start on the wedding party. They were an astonished lot, and we might have been around a corner and out of sight before they thought to give chase had the car only cooperated. But it was sluggish and unresponsive, and by the time we reached the corner they were racing down the center of the street after us.
I took the corner without reducing speed. The little car’s rear end swung out like a jackknifing trailer, and we very nearly flipped over at the improbable speed of thirty-five miles an hour. Greta clutched my arm in panic. I used the other arm to keep us from knocking down a presumably innocent bystander. The wedding mob turned the corner, panting hot on our trail, shouting unintelligible things after us. The next intersection was blocked by two police cars, evidently en route to quell the Nazi disturbance. One of the police vans had nosed into the tail of the other, and the two drivers, resplendent in identical uniforms, were having a fist fight beside their crippled vessels.
I leaped the curb, swung around the wreck, and pressed onward. The car began to build up a little in the way of speed, and then the engine coughed and sputtered and stalled, and the mob was gaining on us.
The streets were lined with Czechs who had come out to watch the fun. The police wreck was spectacle enough, but now they had the thrill of watching a wild-eyed mob run down a bridal couple. The vanguard of the mob had very nearly reached us when I made the engine catch again, and we were off in a cloud of monoxide.