Of course, it goes without saying, he had made no mention to Fritz of the terrible thing that was to befall him that day, so how was it possible he knew? Because he did know, most definitely he knew. Kühn had done everything in his power to ensure that this particular morning was the same as every other morning, to keep to his usual routine, but somehow, obviously, he had given himself away. Later he wondered if, perhaps, he’d made the mistake of pretending to be cheerful. There was so little to be cheerful about these days and yet, while he was making himself a cup of tea, he had made an effort to whistle a little tune — almost under his breath, it’s true, but he’d whistled it nevertheless. At another time, he distinctly remembered saying out loud, even though all the windows were blacked out and he had no idea what the weather was like, Well, I think the day is going to turn out fine. So stupid, he said to himself; how could he have been so stupid? Was it really so surprising Fritz had become suspicious?
He had also risen from his bed earlier than usual. How imbecilic was that! There was good reason for such singular behavior of course: all too clearly he had been able to picture Frau Wengler clasping Fritz to her ample bosom and crying out in her high-pitched, irritating voice — as if she was about to break into Elisabeth’s aria in Tannhauser: How can he take my sweet baby from me? What cruelty! What barbarism! You are so trusting, such an innocent, and this is how that monster betrays you.
He really couldn’t have borne such effusions of grief. She’d have gone on and on, diligently fanning her indignation and doubtless shedding copious tears as she did so. Even Herbert might have been prompted to join in and say something, and he rarely said anything at all unless it was to discuss the pros and cons of the latest chess move he was studying. The others would have been just as bad, their silent reproaches, the sighs and rolling of the eyes communicating their disapproval every bit as effectively as the loud wailings of Frau Wengler. Oh no, most certainly he could not have borne to put himself through such torture. Rising early had truly been the only option.
He took some broken biscuits from the container in the cupboard and put them in a dish. As he was straightening up, he decided to add a few more — why not, it was Fritz’s last meal. And immediately he struck the heel of his palm against his forehead. What a dullard he was, what a fool. He was getting too old to think straight. Trying to cover up his mistake he said out loud, Oh dear, have I given you more biscuits than usual, my friend? That was stupid of me. I can’t have been paying attention. I didn’t sleep well last night, you know. I’m tired. That must be the reason I’m being so careless. Pay no attention to this old fool.
It could possibly have been his imagination, but when Fritz looked at him his expression seemed to say, Don’t you worry, I know you mean well. You can’t do anything about the situation in which we now find ourselves. You have your instructions, and must obey them. I don’t blame you in the least.
While Kühn sat and watched his friend eat, he tried to wrap his hands around his teacup, but they were covered in chilblains so it was impossible to do so. Instead he placed them in his armpits. There was no sound from the others, but he knew it wouldn’t be long before they’d be up, shuffling and groaning their way through the gloomy apartment, complaining about this, that and the next thing, almost before they’d opened their eyes.
Once again he took the letter out of the inside pocket of his jacket. It was wrinkled from so much handling. He had to screw up his eyes to read the words because the kitchen was lit by only one faint bulb. The message was short, centered amongst an ostentatious display of white space. The name and address of the government department at the top of the page appeared small and insignificant, but he knew from experience that these innocent looking directives, those you were tempted to ignore because of their seeming unimportance, were usually the ones that carried the most weight. Their very meagerness was a trap for the unwary. He noticed Fritz studying him, so he folded up the letter and put it back in his jacket. What if his friend had read it? Although the dog was sitting on the floor behind the letter — meaning the message would be back to front even if he could read through the sheet of paper — and even though dogs are rumored to lack reading skills, Kühn was so overwrought, he almost persuaded himself that such an eventuality might be possible.
Maybe we shouldn’t go, he thought. Maybe I should forget the directive and keep you hidden here. But what if someone betrays us? They’ll come for me then, and that will mean no end of trouble. Certainly prison, maybe worse.
If Marta had been alive, she’d have known what to do. She had always been the courageous one. She would certainly never have allowed them to do such a terrible thing to their little friend. He didn’t know what she would have done to get them out of this trouble, but she’d have thought of something. Fritz has been with us since he was a few weeks old, he thought. You’re family, he said out loud. Those were the words Marta always used: you’re family. Even if they’d come banging on the door, she’d have told them what they could do with their directive. He smiled at the thought and, with the back of his hand, wiped away a tear. Not a lot of good it would have done her, though. Most likely, they’d have taken her away, as well as the dog, and shot her — or worse, if the rumors were to be believed.
When he finished his tea, and Fritz stopped licking the bottom of his empty bowl — which he could do for anything up to five minutes these days — he went out into the hall and took down his overcoat, scarf and hat. The dog ran forwards and backwards between the kitchen and the front door, as if this might encourage Kühn to hurry up, but finally he stopped by the door and sat down, his head on one side, looking at his master enquiringly. He could almost have been saying, And where are you taking me today? We’re going somewhere different, aren’t we? I am certain of it.
He definitely knows, the old man thought, and yet he’s so trusting. That’s what makes this so difficult. To break the silence, he said, We’ll just go for our usual walk today. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he was cursing himself. Dullard, he said to himself, dolt! How could you be so stupid? Now he’ll know for certain that it’s not our usual walk. You’ve given yourself away again, you fool. You try to act normally, but all you do is act like a madman. And he went back into the kitchen, still roundly ticking himself off and shaking his head, cold fingers struggling to do up the buttons on his overcoat. When he saw that Fritz had stayed in the hallway, possibly pondering this latest news about their walk, Kuhn bent down, one hand holding onto the edge of the table and, trying not to draw attention to himself, quickly picked up the dog’s bowl and put it in his shopping bag. I’ll take it just in case, he mumbled to himself. You never know….
Outside, an early morning blue — a virginal cloudless canopy mocking the world of grey that lay beneath — covered an eerie, absolute silence. Not a soul was in sight. And why should people get up, Kühn thought, what was there to get up for nowadays? If it wasn’t for Fritz, he himself would probably stay in bed every morning, maybe for the length of the day. There was scarcely a better place to be.
He shuffled his way along the street, the dog following close behind, stopping at every lamppost for a sniff or to raise his leg. Kühn let him stop; they were never in a hurry, not these days. After walking a couple of blocks, he found himself heading in the direction of the city’s main park. He hadn’t planned to go there. He wasn’t allowed to enter public parks now, so he usually avoided walking anywhere near them because he didn’t want Fritz to remember what he was missing. Yet now, perversely, he found himself edging along the street on the park’s southern boundary. His heart was beating fast. He looked up and down the street. Grand apartments lined the opposite side of the street, facing onto the park, but it was still early and there was no one to be seen. He bent down and unclipped the lead.
Go on, away with you.
Fritz looked at him, a quizzical expression on his face. It had been so long since he’d been off his lead, he’d either forgotten what it was like to run around by himself, or taken aback by his owner’s spontaneous decision. The old man pointed to the park. Go and have a run. Hurry!
The dog turned his head and looked briefly at the large expanse of grass, but must have decided he required more of an explanation from his master before obeying such a command. He sat down on the pavement as if to say, What are we playing at now? I don’t know this game, and even if I did, I’m not sure I want to go off and leave you.
Kühn started to walk away, slowly, almost on tiptoe, as if wishing not to draw attention to his departure. After a few yards he turned and peered over his shoulder. Fritz had gone! He was about to congratulate himself, when he suddenly spotted the dog right at his heels. Shoo! Get into the park, you numbskull. But the dog simply looked up at him and wagged his tail. He either didn’t understand or, Kühn was convinced, didn’t want to understand. Why don’t you run away? You do nothing to help yourself. Are you so determined to let this terrible thing happen to you? Go on, be off with you!
In the distance, on the other side of the road, there was someone walking towards them. The old man bent down and attached the lead to Fritz’s collar. Keeping his head bowed, he shuffled forward, trying to make himself invisible. He was fearful the stranger would shout across the street at him, but he passed without a word.
A little further on, he again removed the lead. I want you to be good and stay here in the park. I’ll come back and collect you soon.
That’s so obviously a lie, he thought. How could he betray his friend in such a way?
Go on, shoo! The dog stared up at him. The old man stepped forward. Go away! You have to leave. You know what will happen to you if you stay with me.
Fritz flattened his front legs on the pavement, stuck his rear in the air, and wagged his little tail eagerly. He was ready to join in. Even though he didn’t know this particular game, it looked like it might be fun.
I’m not playing with you! Go on, away you go. The old man waved his arms, and the dog suddenly sprang up and ran across the grass. A few yards away, he stopped and crouched down, as if to say it was now his master’s turn to make a move, to give chase. Kühn took a couple of steps forward and shouted, as loudly as he dared, Off you go! And the dog sprang up and ran further across the park.
The old man turned and set off as quickly as he was able towards the end of the road and the corner of the park. Now you’ll be safe, he muttered to himself. Be happy, my little friend. Don’t forget your old master.
Without stopping, he looked back over his shoulder and saw that Fritz was sniffing around the base of a large tree. It must be exciting for him, he thought, he hasn’t been in a park for such a long time. Reaching the corner, he turned into the street that ran along the eastern edge of the park and was soon out of sight.
He hurried across the road. In the distance, there was a tram. He glanced over his shoulder and, when he saw Fritz wasn’t following him, changed direction and turned up a narrow residential street. His heart was heavy. If only he’d been able to sit down and explain to his friend why he was behaving like this. He was only doing it for his sake, to save him. Kühn told himself it was possible a stranger would find Fritz in the park and take him home to their family. Then his friend would be happy. He’d miss Kühn, of course he would, but at least he’d be safe.
He sat down on a bench, quite out of breath. No one was to be seen, so there was little risk of getting into trouble. He wanted time by himself, to weep.
Quite a while later, or that’s how it seemed, he looked round to see Fritz tearing up the street, his small legs stretched out front and back, barely touching the ground. He skidded to a halt in front of the old man, leapt up onto his lap and began frantically to lick his face, wriggling with excitement. In between kissing him, Kühn spoke to the dog, saying how happy he was to see him in one breath, then, in the next, saying how stupid he was to return to his master.
Oh yes, I love you too, but you should have stayed in the park. You don’t help yourself by following me like this. Even though I love you dearly, I’m asking you to run away. Don’t you understand? You must run off now. Yet he clung to his small friend even more tightly as he said this.
A smartly dressed young woman and a little girl were walking down the street towards them. Kühn put the dog back on the ground. When they came near, the old man raised his left hand to the rim of his hat as if ready to doff it to the lady, but in reality it was a feeble attempt to cover the yellow cloth with its black star pinned to his breast. The little girl reached down and patted Fritz. The dog stood up, wagging his tail in a friendly fashion, but looking subservient at the same time, as if he was unworthy of this attention and half expected the pats to turn into blows. When the girl continued to pet him, the dog started to relax, standing up on his hind legs, his front paws on the little girl’s blue dress. The old man smiled, and for the briefest of moments clung to the belief that this family might adopt Fritz and so rescue him from his fate. The woman, who’d walked on a few yards while this was going on, shouted at the girl to leave the dog alone, but as is the case with little girls all around the world when confronted by a creature smaller than themselves, she continued to pat and stroke her newfound friend. Kühn said, his hand still to the rim of his hat, You had better run along and catch up with your mother. But the girl paid no attention to him.
Suddenly, the mother strode back towards them and lashed out at Fritz with her umbrella. He yelped. Get away from that Jew’s dog, she shouted. Leave the filthy creature alone! And she grabbed her daughter’s hand and dragged her away. As they walked off, the girl casting one last look over her shoulder at the little friend she’d made — who was now hiding behind his master’s legs — the old man understood that no one would adopt his dog. You’re a Jew, he said to Fritz, like me. No one wants you either. You had might as well wear a star too. And he reached down and stroked the top of his friend’s head.
Come on, he said eventually, we can’t sit here all day. If someone should see us sitting on this bench….
As he walked, he leant a little towards the dog and said, I have to do this, Fritz, you understand that? I have to obey the laws of the country, no matter how much I may disagree with them. We all do.
He should be used to these directives by now. His people were already banned from reading rooms, restricted to shopping between the hours of three and four, and forbidden to buy flowers or to smoke cigarettes, so this — not being allowed to keep pets — was surely not unexpected. It was simply another comfort they were to be deprived of.
At the end of the street there was a main road. The building on one of the corners had been reduced to a pile of rubble. Many of the shops here displayed Jews Unwelcome and Jews Prohibited signs on their front doors. There were more people up and about now, so Kühn tried to be as inconspicuous as possible: to keep his head down, mind his own business and avoid eye contact with those around them.
They stopped at a cake shop. The cakes were displayed on glass shelves that were tilted slightly towards the window. Because of the war there weren’t too many to look at, but there were a few, generously spaced, in neat rows across the length of the window. Below the shelves were the gateaux: Black Forest gateaux and sponge cakes and many others he didn’t know the names of. He could see the cream wasn’t as thick as it had been in the old days, and that the fruit wasn’t as plentiful, but the cakes were still wondrously tempting.
Inside the shop, he could see a woman behind the counter. She had a sharp face, as if the flesh had been worn right back by the never ending friction of day-to-day living. She was staring, quite blatantly, at Kühn through the window. He lowered his gaze. You had better be on your way, you old fool, before you get yourself into trouble. And he was about to walk on when the shop door opened and the woman came out. The old man held his breath, waiting to be cursed or shouted at and told to move on. But the woman came and stood beside him, and she also stared into the shop window. He didn’t know what to make of this.
Don’t speak, she said to him in a low voice. Here, take this. And she thrust a paper bag into his hands. Then she bent down and gave Fritz a biscuit. Don’t look at me, she said to Kühn, don’t say anything. And with that she went back into the shop.
There were tears in the old man’s eyes. He wiped them away with the back of his hand. Don’t be an old fool; it’s just the cold. And he set off down the street once again. He was unable to resist taking a quick peep inside the paper bag; there were two cream buns there. He smiled and thanked God there were still some good people left in the world.
They passed a building. All six floors had been flattened by a bomb, and only the facade of the building remained.
As they came near to their destination on the other side of town, he walked more slowly. He had a pain in his chest. He told himself it was because he was so sad. Even the dog seemed to be dragging on his leash, as if he too realized they were near the end of their journey. Poor Fritzy, he said quietly, and the dog looked up at him enquiringly, as if wanting an explanation as to why he suddenly deserved such sympathy. Things were no worse than usual, were they?
It was a large, anonymous building. Approaching it from across the road, he could see a big chimney at the back, from which a thin plume of smoke was emerging. He felt uneasy. He had expected — although he hadn’t given it a great deal of thought — a small, clean place, staffed by people who loved animals. Maybe it will be better inside, he told himself.
Come on, Fritz, it won’t be so bad.
He had been through the arguments with himself so many times, wondering if he could get away with disobeying the directive, but he knew it wasn’t possible. Those who were ready to betray Jews were everywhere. He would never be able to hide the dog from prying eyes forever, probably not even for a week. Fritz had a nasty habit of barking if he was left alone, so the neighbours would hear him.
Inside the building was a long metal counter and, to one side of this, a wooden bench. The place smelt strongly of disinfectant. A man appeared through a door behind the counter. Heil Hitler! he shouted, raising his arm forcefully, as if intent on making his action as big a personal affront to Kühn as possible.
Heil Hitler, the old man muttered.
The man took the official letter off Kühn. Wait here, he said, disappearing through the door.
Another Jew dog with his dog, Kühn heard him say through the open doorway, and a woman said something in reply, which he didn’t catch.
He bent down and patted Fritz, fondling his ears and saying, Now don’t you worry yourself. You’ll be all right here. I’m sure they will be kind to you when I leave. But he knew he was speaking lies, and that Fritz realized that too.
The man came back into the room, laid the letter on the counter and stamped it forcefully, as if intent on subduing it with one blow. He pushed it across the counter towards Kühn, then lifted a section of counter and barked: Hand him over then.
Can I say goodbye?
You should’ve done that before. Here! And he wrenched the lead out of the old man’s hand.
Kühn wanted to ask if he could keep the lead, but didn’t dare. The dog trotted after the man, casting just one quick look back at his master. He’s too obedient, Kühn thought; he does nothing to help himself.
Shall I leave his bowl for him? I have it here. I’m happy to leave it. For his new home… He took the dog bowl out of his shopping bag.
That’s a joke. He’s not going to any new home. As for feeding him… And the man let out a sound that was half a snort, half a sneer. What do you think this is, an effing hotel?
The woman on the other side of the door laughed. The man dragged Fritz out of sight, and Kühn heard the man and woman talking. He waited beside the counter even though he told himself the man wouldn’t come back. He was paralyzed, not just by fear, but from a lifetime of doing as he was told.
The man did return to the room, however, but without Fritz. He stared at Kühn. Well, what are you still here for? Go away and leave us in peace.
The old man stammered something.
You must go. We have work to do.
And Kühn went out through the front door, back into the sunlight. His heart was heavy. I’m sure it’s for the best, he told himself. You’re lucky to be out of this hellhole, Fritzy. Truth is, you’ll be better off than the rest of us.
Then he noticed that he was still carrying the paper bag, and wished he’d thought to have given a cream bun to his friend before they parted. Setting off back along the route he had already travelled, he wished he could think of Fritz as just an animal, the way many people did. That would have made this so much easier to bear. And this thought led him on, a moment later, to agonizing over whether or not Fritz could possibly have suspected, even for a moment, what was to befall him that day.