The Voice of Night – Rise of the Nazis

steinwiesen-germanyI dreamed I lived in a small city in mid-1930s Germany, and the Nazi party was on the rise. Inflation was high, as was unemployment, and all around people were becoming more and more uncertain about their futures. I was a young woman in this dream — a young lesbian in a waning relationship — and the circumstances around me seemed to mirror the decay of my own connection. There was general discontent, fear, and anxiety about the precariousness of everyday life. No one had enough to eat, and everyone was looking for something certain to hang onto. The Nazis sensed this and members were pasting their party posters and placards everywhere people could see.

It made me nervous. The brown shirts and the Nazi Youth intimidated everyone. They would stop people on the street and interrogate or humiliate them publicly. Deep down inside, I knew something was desperately wrong and that I needed to get out of the country, but nobody else seemed to notice that anything was amiss. They just went on with their everyday lives, nervous, scowling and uncertain, but not opposing the efforts of this new, extreme political party.

I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t. In the city where I lived, was Sarah, a woman who was my ex-lover, and I still cared very deeply about her. We had long since become little more than friends, but we kept in touch, saw each other regularly, and were very loyal to one another in friendship.

Yet, she was even more loyal to another. It was her lover who’d preceded me in her life. If Sarah and I were close, she and Marta, her previous ex, were even closer. Sarah was still desperately in love with Marta (which had been the main reason she and I had broken up in the first place), and she spent every spare moment with her. She waited on her, hand and foot and was like a puppy dog with her, following her every move, hanging on her every word and deed, making herself available whenever Marta said she needed her, always putting her needs second to what Marta wanted from her. They were still closely hooked into one another, and that was to be Sarah’s undoing.

Politically and socially, things were getting worse and worse. The personal intimidation had turned to outright terrorism against “enemies of the people.” I tried to talk to people about the changes happening. Stores were firebombed, people were arrested and taken away, but everybody was terrified of going against the new party and no one would listen to me when I spoke up in passing conversations.

I had to do something, though. When talking to people in public proved fruitless, I tried to approach them privately. I went into the public baths and health spas and tried speaking to people when they were relaxed and (I hoped) open to new ideas. But when I suggested there might be something wrong with the way things were, people just looked at me as though I were crazy, turned away and ignored me. They were in a daze, and while they said they didn’t think anything was wrong, the whites of their eyes showed, and they were pale with fear and dread.

But not everyone was apathetic or frozen by their fears. Every day, people were leaving in a steady stream from the train station in town. The train cars pulling out for other European cities were packed with people carrying what they could of their personal possessions in boxes tied with string. They were silent and mournful, almost catatonic, yet at least the ones leaving had a spark of survival instinct in their eyes.

They were the few among the many, though, for not everyone had the courage to leave. Many chose to stay, immobilized by fear, or too attached to their lives there, to go anywhere. They couldn’t imagine life anywhere else, and couldn’t stand the thought of getting out.

They were the saddest of all. They knew something was desperately wrong in the country, and wanted so much to leave. But they had high-ranking positions in society, or they had tenure at the university. Or they had loved ones whom they couldn’t bear to leave. Passing along the street, I often heard conversations between people who were torn between leaving and staying — those who wanted everyone to leave were fighting a losing battle against those who vaguely knew they could be in danger, but were too invested in their present way of life to make a move.

Among those was my ex, Sarah, who knew something was up, but was still in love with Marta. Night after night, I would go to her house after work and try to talk sense to her. I threatened, I begged, I insisted, I reasoned. She needed to get out, because things were bad, very bad, and we would surely be taken away, being lesbians. But she wouldn’t listen to me. She couldn’t leave her Marta, who saw nothing wrong with what was happening, had a good position teaching at the university, and didn’t feel particularly threatened by the political upheaval around her.

I was despondent, on the verge of despair. But one day, I found a compatriot who knew there was something desperately wrong going on. He was a dark-complected Jewish intellectual who had the same suspicions I did, and was as ignored as I was, by people he tried to talk to. We both knew something awful was happening and we had to do something. No amount of talking to strangers or approaching people we cared about helped, and we both felt as though we were losing our minds. It was as though it weren’t even happening in anyone else’s lives. But at least we had each other for company and confidence.

In an attempt to better understand what was happening, we decided we needed to get a closer look at these Nazi characters. So one night, we met in a deserted part of town, wearing long dark raincoats and set out to spy on a political rally that was scheduled for that night. It was taking place out on the ramparts of a remaining portion of the city’s medieval wall, and we had a great vantage point at the base of the wall. It was dark there, and an alley led back to better lighted streets.

We crept as close as we could to the grandstand, and spied on the Nazis. We had a great view of the “inner sanctum”, the circle of key players who were planning, even that night, their next political move. We overheard them talking about shipping people off to camps — it would happen soon. Horrified, we looked at each other and whispered we had to get out of town right away.

Then one of the goons heard us talking, and looked down into the alley and shone a spotlight around us. Barely ducking out of the beam’s reach in time, we ran down the alley, splashing through a culvert filled with water, and sticking as close to the building walls beside us to hide from the spotlights the guards were shining after us.

We split up, and agreed to meet the next day to discuss our next move. We both knew it was past time for talking. It was time to take action.

The next day, we met on a park bench and discussed the situation under our breath, while pretending to read newspapers. My friend wanted to leave the country right away and wanted me to come, too. He said, “There’s no time left. If we don’t get out now, we’ll both be lost. They’re closing the border in another day or two, and you heard what they plan to do with Jews like me and lesbians like you.”

But I said I wouldn’t leave without Sarah. I couldn’t just leave her. Not like that.

He argued and argued, as loudly as he could under the circumstances.

But I knew he was right. At last, I agreed to go talk to Sarah and see if she would come with me. “It might take another week to convince her,” I said.

“But we don’t have another week,” he insisted. He was leaving the next day, and if I chose to stay behind, that was on my head.

I agreed, the situation was bad, and I had to get out too, but not without Sarah. Not without Sarah. He was irate, beside himself. He cursed me for letting a woman come between myself and my safety. But he finally let it go and asked me to see him off at the train station the next day.

I agreed, and we parted ways — neither of us very happy.

I went right over to Sarah’s house. I told her about the rally and what I’d seen, but she wasn’t moved. No matter how I begged her to come with me, she said she wouldn’t leave without Marta. I tried talking sense to her, explaining that soon none of us would be able to leave, and we’d all be hauled off to be killed — or worse.

But she said, although she knew I was right, she wouldn’t leave her ex-lover. Marta needed her, she said, and Marta would die without her.

“You’ll die with her, then,” I said.

“You’re probably right,” she said, but added that if I had to go, I shouldn’t wait for her. “If you need to go, you should. I understand.”

I left her then, angry, frustrated, and finally resolved to get out of the city at all cost.

My friend left the next day from the train station and I saw him off. He said I’d have to come soon, too, or I’d be trapped there with no chance of escape.

I said “I know, but I have to see if I can save Sarah.” I said goodbye one last time, and the train pulled out with him waving goodbye from a crowded window.

Once the train was out of sight, I went and bought my ticket. I went home and decided what I wanted to bring with me, then went to Sarah’s. “I’ll be leaving in the morning,” I said, “and I want you to come with me.”

But she said, “No, I’m too attached to Marta.” She wouldn’t budge.

I begged and threatened and pleaded with her more strongly than every before, almost becoming violent in my frenzy to win her over — get her out of the country with me, no matter what.

Finally she said she would talk to Marta and try to get her to come, too. Then she would escape with me… But only if Marta could come, too.

I was at my wits’ end and agreed. What did I care if Marta was coming along, too? I hated and resented her for driving Sarah and me apart. But I could tolerate her presence, I decided, as long as I knew the woman I still loved was safe. Anything to get out of that place. Anything to escape.

I left then, and said I’d be back later that night to see what she had planned.

But when I returned that night, Sarah said she’d talked to Marta, but she wouldn’t change her mind. Marta had said this was her home and she wasn’t leaving it. She’d worked too long and too hard getting where she was, to just toss it aside in a panic. Sarah told me she wasn’t going to come with me.

I said, “You know how bad things are getting.”

She said she knew, but she couldn’t leave Marta. She was all she had — all either of them had, and she couldn’t part with her. Even if it meant they’d both be killed.

“I have to go,” I said, and went home to finish packing my bags.

Sarah saw me off at the train station the next morning, mournful but resolute. I asked her one last time if she wouldn’t reconsider, but she shook her head. And as my train pulled away, there she was… standing alone on the platform waving goodbye and looking doomed.

The next day, they closed the borders.

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