“Is Simone tied up in this story somehow?”
“Yes. She is very much involved in it. She is a perfect example of the innocence of youth. We arrive on this earth as an offspring of two people, who had a complicated existence and history before we take our first breath. We grow up thinking we are the center of the universe. We never look back and ask where we came from and who we are. We just push forward.
“Children are egotists. They think they are all knowing and universal. Their feelings are the world’s feelings.”
“I wish you could imagine the world in 1933. The people were different; they thought differently. Even the world smelled different. Now it is purified and perfumed. In 1933, you could smell people. There was no air conditioning, no shower in every apartment. People lived closer together, even though there were no cell phones. We wrote letters. We talked to one another. We didn’t spend the evening in front of a television.
“Imagine horse-drawn wagons on the streets of Berlin. Imagine the smell of horse droppings on the cobblestone. Imagine the smells of outdoor privies and coal-burning fires. Imagine butcher shops where the carcass of the dead animals hung in the window. Imagine men in uniform walking up and down the streets in the hundreds, in the thousands. Imagine the smell of fear in the air, as the great Nazi beast began to stir.
“I met your friend Sartre in 1934 in Berlin. He was a smelly little man. Quite unkempt, but smart, very smart. I remember drinking beer with him on the Unter den Linden. He was reading Heidegger and Husserl and he was full of their ideas. I had never heard of Heidegger before, but as Sartre talked about him, I became more excited. He was reading Introduction to Metaphysics. He started talking about Being, and as he talked, there was a light in his eyes. That light was so bright that he saw nothing else around him.”
A waiter appeared and asked if they wanted anything. Löwe ordered a glass of Proseeco and invited Vogel to join him. In the background Vogel heard Bettina laugh and saw her reach out and touch Simone’s arm.
“In those days, Sartre was having an affair with a married Frenchwoman. He told me that she was a ‘contingent love.’ I had never heard that expression before, but I soon experienced what he meant by it.”
He paused to sip his drink and then turned to listen to Simone’s conversation with Asshauer. Vogel was impatient to know what the old man was talking about. He didn’t believe that he was just talking. It seemed to Vogel that Löwe was calculating and sly and that his choice of conversation was designed to tell Vogel something, something that he wanted him to know.
Asshauer stood up abruptly, shook everyone’s hand and then said that he had to rush to the airport to catch his plane. Once he had left, Drago replaced the chair he had moved and Bettina signaled the waiter to bring them menus. Löwe was now sitting next to Simone and it was as if he had forgotten the conversation he was having with Vogel. He was now speaking French fluently and asking Simone about her life in Paris.
“I live in a new area called Le Défense, a high rise.”
“I have seen pictures.” He wrinkled his nose and frowned at the concept of Mitterand’s new Paris. “Why is it always the socialists who build the monuments?”
“Vogel wondered if he was thinking of Mitterand or Hitler or Albert Speer.
“Are your grandparents still living?”
Vogel was perplexed by the non-sequitur and it seemed the question also surprised Simone.
“What were their names?”
“Rosenberg and Aschheim.”
“Your father’s mother. What was her name?”
“Was she French?”
“She came from France.”
“But was she French?”
Simone looked over at Vogel to see if he was listening. Vogel thought she was saying, with her eyes only, that maybe he was right, that maybe this old man was playing some unknown game with them and they were his victims rather than his interviewers.
“I believe she did live in Berlin for awhile before she returned to Paris. In 1940, she escaped through Spain to Ireland and then to London.”
“Not in 1940 my dear, in 1941.”
“What?” Simone’s mouth fell open.
“May I take your order?” asked the waiter.
Löwe turned to the menu and ignored the look of fear and exasperation on Simone’s face. After ordering, he turned to Vogel and asked, “Did you know that Martine Lauté, the grandmother of Ms. Aschheim, knew both Sartre and Magda Goebbels?”
Vogel heard Simone gasp and then watched, somewhat dumbfounded when she reached out her hand to touch the paper-thin skin of Löwe’s hand. As her long, thin fingers touched his, Vogel imagined he saw a shock shake the old man. How long had it been since someone had touched him? The old man turned toward her and she saw tears in his bright-blue eyes. “You knew my grandmother?” she asked.
“Your grandmother was a friend, someone I met in 1933, in Berlin.”
“You said she knew Magda Goebbels?” asked Vogel, interrupting Simone’s next question.
“Martine Lauté was a student at the Kollmorgen Lyseum, located on Keithstrasse. She was a classmate of Lisa Arlosoroff, a Jewish girl from Königsburg, my mother’s hometown, and Magda Friedländer, who later became Magda Goebbels.”
Simone’s head was buzzing with questions; however, within the chaos of her thoughts, one idea emerged as her most pressing concern – had this interview been simply a ruse to get her here at this table in Florence sitting next to this frail old man?
She cleared her throat and asked, “Am I here because of my grandmother?”
“Not exactly, but partially. You are here because of who you are and what you are.”
“I am here because I am a Jew?”
He started to laugh and then coughed. Vogel handed him a glass of water.