Marie’s New Coat

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I’ve had a bunch of posts for the long-discontinued Sweet Saturday Samples bloghop sitting around in my drafts folder since 2012 and 2013, put together and scheduled well in advance. That hop seems to be on permanent hiatus, but I wanted to move them out already.

This post was originally scheduled for 31 August 2013, and comes from an older, unedited version of this WIP.

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This week’s excerpt comes from a hiatused WIP called The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees. The book follows a group of young Shoah survivors returning to the world of the living and trying to navigate their way through the early postliberation years. This particular scene takes place in Budapest in November 1945, shortly before nine of the characters are to be smuggled across the border, with another going on a train with their pet mouse and rabbit, before the Soviets completely take over.

While they were at a furrier’s on the famous Andrássy Út recently, the hopelessly smitten Artur secretly bought a fur coat for his crush Marie after he saw her admiring it. Marie’s main character trait is how sweet, innocent, and naïve she still is, even after everything she’s gone through. Just as she truly believes her entire family might still be alive, she really has no idea her secret admirer is so close to her. And Artur is afraid to tell her how he feels.

***

The next day, while Csilla was cutting up a blanket and starting to fashion it into a coat for herself, a knock sounded on the door.  Half-fearing it was someone from the authorities who’d discovered their plan, or someone who’d found out there were fourteen people living in an apartment meant for only four at most, she tiptoed to the door and looked through the keyhole.  A strange man was standing there with a box.

“I work for Szűcs Furs on Andrássy Út and was asked to deliver this package to a young woman living in this apartment.  I didn’t want to send it through the mail for fear the Soviets might confiscate it for their own.  Is there a woman named Maria in this house?”

“We have a Marie, if that’s who you’re looking for.  Her surname is Sternglass.”

Marie came up to the deliveryman. “Yes, that’s my name on the package.  Who is it from, and who would know that my middle name is Zénobie?”

“There’s a note inside the box that might explain it.  Enjoy the gift.” He tipped his hat and went back down the stairs.

Marie carefully opened the box and saw a note on top, written in Hungarian.  Her command of written Hungarian was even weaker than her command of the spoken language, so she called Eszter over to translate it.

“It says, ‘To the beautiful Marie from her secret admirer.’” Eszter gave Artur a meaningful look out of the corner of her eye. “I wonder who could have sent it, particularly since you don’t know anybody outside of our own little group.”

“This is so exciting!  Maybe it’s a handsome young fellow who saw me in the street the other day, or any time since we’ve been here!  I hope he’s tall, dark, and handsome.  It would be so romantic if he were a sophisticated man of the world as well.  Someone who’s my age would never be so romantic and thoughtful.  I bet it’s an older man.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Eszter said, giving Artur another furtive look.

Marie pulled away the tissue paper. “What a beautiful coat!  I think I was admiring this coat yesterday more than any of the others!  It stood out in the store because it was so exotic.  None of the other furs had prints or exotic colors.  Is it leopard?”

“The furrier told me it was ocelot when I admired it myself,” Mirjam said. “Looks like whoever is secretly admiring you wants you to keep warm as the winter begins.”

“Oh, if I only knew just who this suave mystery man is, I’d kiss and embrace him right now!  I hope it really is someone tall, dark, handsome, and older, not some middle-aged ugly fat social reject.”

“That is a beautiful coat,” Aranka said. “You’ll surely stand out when we get to Italy.”

“Pierre will be so happy and surprised when he sees me again and sees I’ve become a young lady, someone old enough for furs and such a beautiful elegant coat.  If my mother and sister are still alive, they’ll be so happy too, and impressed I caught the eye of this mystery man.”

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Meet some of the people in my alternative history, Part III

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Here are a few of the other real people who appear as characters in my alternative history, whom I haven’t already featured. Not everyone is from the Russian Imperial Family!

Captain Aleksandr Aronovich Pecherskiy (22 February 1909–19 January 1990) was born in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, and grew up in Rostov-na-Donu. He earned a diploma in literature and music, and worked as an accountant and manager of an amateur musicians’ school, and as an electrician at a train repair plant. He served in the army from 1931–33.

The day the war began, he was drafted as a junior lieutenant, and served with the 596th Howitzer Artillery Regiment. In autumn 1941, he saved his wounded commander from capture, but didn’t get any medals for his bravery.

He was captured in October 1941, and suffered with typhus for seven months. He and four other POWs escaped, but were recaptured that same day. They went to a penal camp and then a POW camp, where it was discovered he was circumcised. He admitted he was Jewish, knowing he’d be whipped for lying.

Severe punishments and several other POW camps followed. He ended up in Sobibór, where he organized and led the revolt and mass escape of 14 October 1943. After serving with two partisan groups, he reunited with the Red Army, and was promoted to Captain. He was wounded in Latvia in August 1944.

During the last years of Stalin’s reign, he lost his job, was briefly arrested, and was unable to find new employment. The Soviet government prevented him from testifying at several trials of Nazi war criminals abroad.

For his courage, he has received four medals (two posthumous), and many other awards and honors.

In my alternative history, Captain Pecherskiy and 50 other Jewish partisans, mostly escapees from camps and ghettoes, arrive at the Aleksandr Palace in September 1944 to petition Aleksey and Arkadiya to create all-Jewish regiments in the Imperial Russian Army. He becomes commander of an eponymous infantry regiment, and receives many medals and honors after the war.

King Mihai (Michael) of Romania (25 October 1921–5 December 2017) was the last king of Romania, and the last true surviving WWII head of state. He was the son of the repulsive King Carol II and Queen Mother Elena (née Princess Eleni of Greece and Denmark); grandson of King Konstantinos I of Greece and King Ferdinand and Queen Marie of Romania; great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria and Tsar Aleksandr II; great-great-great-grandson of Tsar Nicholas I.

Soon after Mihai’s birth, his sleazy father was embroiled in yet another scandalous relationship, and renounced his claim to the throne. Mihai became king in 1927, after Ferdinand’s death, with a regency including his uncle Nicolae.

Carol returned to Romania in 1930, and refused to reconcile with his wife. He forced her out of the country and only let her see Mihai a few months a year, on his own terms. After Carol abdicated in September 1940, Mihai became king again.

Mihai frequently suffered bouts of depression, feeling he were too young and inexperienced to be king, and upset at being treated like a pathetic figurehead by the ruling fascists and Germans passing through. His mother provided teachers to shape him into a strong, active king, and urged him to depose the fascist Prime Minister Ion Antonescu.

She also made him to understand he had to take a stand against Jewish deportations, or risk going down in history as King Mihai the Wicked. He listened to his mother (who posthumously was honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations).

In June 1944, Mihai began secret talks with members of the opposition, to discuss overthrowing Antonescu. His successful coup in August turned Romania to the Allies and shortened the war by as much as six months. Sadly, the Soviets forced him to abdicate in December 1947.

In 1948, Mihai married Princess Anne of Bourbon-Parma, with whom he had five daughters and enjoyed 68 years of marriage.

In my alternative history, Mihai and Nicolae secretly come to Russia in June 1944 to discuss the planned defection and overthrow of Antonescu. He returns in August for the belated baptism of Aleksey and Arkadiya’s surprise fifth child Shura and their nephew Oleg. It means a lot to him that Aleksey, who also came into a throne at a very young age, says he believes in him. Good kings are gradually made, not instantly created.

Drancy

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My IWSG post is here.


Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B10919 / Wisch / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Drancy was an internment camp in a northeastern Parisian suburb of the same name, in use through 20 August 1941–17 August 1944. It began life as La Cité de la Muette (The Silent City), a luxury high-rise, U-shaped apartment complex, among the first of its type in France.

Instead, it was taken over as police headquarters at the start of WWII, and then turned into a transit camp. An estimated 70,000 people passed through during its four years of operation.

Only 1,542 survivors were found when the Allies liberated it.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B10920 / Wisch / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Over time, Drancy grew to include five sub-camps. Initially, it was run by French police, but the Germans took over on 3 July 1943. In spite of the change in command, French police continued to arrest people and bring them to Drancy.

The vast majority of detainees were Jewish, but there was a very small percentage of political prisoners. Most of the latter were in the French Resistance.

Drancy was only designed to hold 700 people, but it housed 7,000 at its height. Many survivors testified to the brutality of the French guards, and how children were immediately separated from their families.

Some Drancy prisoners were killed in retaliation for French attacks on the occupying Germans.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B10917 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Sixty-eight of the seventy-nine deportations of French Jews (with a small minority of political prisoners mixed in) set out from Drancy, starting 27 March 1942. All but six went to Auschwitz. The other destinations were Majdanek, Sobibór, Kaunas, Tallinn, and Buchenwald.

Of the 73,853 known deportees, 46,802 were gassed upon arrival. Only 913 women and 1,647 men were known to survive by 1945.

Copyright Reinhardhauke

Famous internees included artist and writer Max Jacob (who died in Drancy), Dutch painter Max van Dam, writer Tristan Bernard, choreographer René Blum, and German artist Charlotte Salomon.

After the war, survivors filed charges against fifteen of the French gendarmes who ran Drancy. Ten were put on trial, three of whom fled before proceedings began. The other seven insisted they were just following orders, in spite of the numerous testimonies about their brutality.

All ten were found guilty, though the court ruled they’d been rehabilitated by “acts of active, effective, and sustained participation in Resistance against the enemy.” Two of them were sentenced to two years of prison and five years of national indignity. After one year, they were pardoned.

Copyright Ykmyks

In 1976, sculptor Shelomo Selinger (now 89 years old), a Polish-born Shoah survivor, unveiled a three-part rose granite memorial which was two years in the making. There’s also an authentic railcar on permanent display.

Disgustingly, on 20 January 2005, anti-Semites set some of the railcars on fire and left a tract with an swastika, signed “Bin Laden.” On 11 April 2009, a swastika was painted on the remaining railcar.

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My characters Darya Koneva and Oliivia Kalvik are taken to Drancy after participating in an anti-Nazi protest in Paris in October 1942. They’re among the very small minority of non-Jewish political prisoners.

During their three weeks in Drancy, Darya and Oliivia sleep on wet straw and a hard wooden mattress, with only a thin blanket, and eat lousy rations. Drancy makes Darya long for her early years in a Lower East Side tenement.

As soon as they get the opportunity, they volunteer for transport to the mythical Pitchipoi they keep hearing about. On 4 November, their journey to Hell begins, and they discover Pitchipoi doesn’t exist. Auschwitz is referred to as not-Pitchipoi, Planet Pitchipoi, and Pitchipoi 99% of the time, both in the text and Darya and Oliivia’s speech.

When Darya’s future husband Andrey asks about this, she says it’s her way of dealing with that ugliness and evil. If she doesn’t use the real name, she won’t be confronted by cruel reality.

WeWriWa— “Still standing tall”

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weekend_writing_warriorsveteransbadge_4

Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet immediately follows last week’s, and closes this section of this chapter. Soldiers from the U.S. Third Army have arrived at Buchenwald in response to several radio messages sent by the camp’s robust resistance, and two of them have given their chronograph watches to 15-year-old Kálmán and 14-year-old Móric.

Móric has just announced he doesn’t feel well enough to keep standing, and lowered himself onto the ground. As the youngest and most slightly-built member of their original group of twenty-four, he’s survived so long because the older boys took care of him. Kálmán surreptitiously carried Móric on his back during the homestretch of the march to Buchenwald, and when Móric became too sick and weak even for the boys’ brick-laying detail, their Communist Kapo hid him in the typhus ward.

Virdzsi (VEER-jee) is Kálmán’s brother Virgil, named after the great Roman poet. As it turns out, Virgil may have survived after all.

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“That’s okay.” Kálmán knelt beside him and put his arm around Móric. “You’re still standing tall and strong.  The Americans came in time to save us, and as soon as we’re well enough to travel, we can go home and start planning our immigration to Palestine.”

“It won’t be easy to go back into the world.  I don’t think we’ll ever be normal again.”

Kálmán put his other arm around Móric and rocked him back and forth. “It never is easy to go from one extreme to another.  Like Virdzsi’s namesake said, ‘The gates of Hell are open night and day; smooth the descent, and easy is the way; but to return, and view the cheerful skies, in this the task and mighty labor lies.’”

Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia, Jean-Baptiste Wicar, 1790–93

When Kálmán’s family was taken to the Abony ghetto last May, one of the items strewn across their front yard was his mother’s gold-leaf, illuminated Aeneid, fluttering open to a passage about how everyone’s final day is fixed. When Kálmán returns home, that book is one of the items given back to him by some Catholic friends who went around recovering and hiding as many things as possible from their Jewish neighbors before they were plundered by enemies.

WeWriWa—A very meaningful gift

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weekend_writing_warriorsveteransbadge_4

Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes right after last week’s, when 14-year-old Móric tried to give his chronograph watch from a soldier to his 15-year-old friend Kálmán. Kálmán refused it, and then another soldier gave Kálmán his own chronograph watch.

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“Thank you very much.” Kálmán put the watch around his left wrist and buckled it on the innermost notch. “I haven’t had any personal possessions since last June. This ugly uniform, my ragged blanket, and my beat-up bowl don’t count. We weren’t even allowed to have names.” He indicated his tattoo.

Móric let go of Kálmán and eased himself onto the ground. “I’m too dizzy to stand anymore.”