The smell of his intoxicating cologne consumed the tiny grey office. Instead of sitting at his desk like I presumed teachers would during student visits, Professor Hans Molkoff was leaning against its edge, my cinema essay in his hand. I stood in front of him idly, reminding myself to maintain a certain amount of distance between us.
At The Modern University, in Germany, the one in which we stood, it was no secret that I was one of a few women who idolised Hans. Never when directly addressing him did we call him by his Christian name, but only among ourselves in our dormitories and during dinner. With blonde hair and blue eyes he was tall and athletic and only nine years my senior. At thirty years old, he was quite a young professor, a fact which was never emphasised by any of the other staff members simply because Hans understood The Modern University’s culture so well.
“Ah, Clara. Thank you for coming. Please take a seat.”
He looked at the chair behind me. I sat down and placed my hands in my lap, a little apprehensive before the arrival of his speech. As he shifted my essay from his left hand into his right I looked at his wedding finger, remembering he was engaged to Hattie Kitsen, she obviously not being a student of his. How I wished I was not in Global Cinema so that he might have considered myself instead.
“You understand why I have called this meeting, do you not?” he asked.
“I do.” I say.
“It troubles me somewhat that you have failed this task.”
When I didn’t say anything and continued to stare at the floor, he went on.
“Would you allow me to discuss a few areas with you that have been of concern.”
Flipping the first page of the essay over, he arrived at the second and began reading from the fourth paragraph.
“I do not think it necessary Sir. I understand I have failed and I accept it.”
“You accept it? Why?”
“We are in the infancy of a war Sir. These past few weeks have been turmoil. When I cared about grades before, I do not anymore.”
“War is not a time for complacency Miss Kobel. It is a time for assertiveness. Might I remind you that you will not obtain your degree if you do not pass all units?”
“At the end of this war sir, a cinema degree will not save the Jewish race from Hitler. He has already closed all of our film houses down.”
“Miss Kobel. Don’t be disheartened. We may not have our cinemas but we have our beliefs and we have each other with whom we share those beliefs.”
Perhaps my little crush was a one way obsession, but sitting in Han’s office with Hans himself, the forty degree heat could not be blamed for the heat I was feeling inside. I could not stand to listen to him talk about essays and complacent behaviour any longer. His usual attire of jacket and tie had been swapped for a crisp white linen shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the top button undone. I kept staring at his buttons, wishing I could jump off my chair and undo all of them. I was sweating in my dress and dreaded standing up while my bottom made my dress stick to the chair. I pushed a stray black curl behind my ear and looked up at his face and then made eye contact with him.
“Could I please have a glass of water?” I asked. Hans stood up, placed my essay on the end of his desk and walked over to a stand against a far wall on which his water pitcher stood. It looked like an expensive vase made of mahogany and gold detail. I stood up, grabbed my essay and sat back down.
“Thank you.” I said when he handed me the water. I took a sip and held the glass and my essay in the same hand.
“I think our discussion has concluded then, has it not Miss Kobel?”
“I believe so. Thank you for your time. I must go now. This office is stifling.” He looked offended; whether it was because I did not want to discuss my poor grade or because I insulted the state of his office, I could not and did not care to tell.
“One second more of your time. I have a book that I think you should read.”
He stood up, left his office and left me alone with my thoughts. Or so I thought. After about five minutes I looked at the doorway in which he stood, and I wondered how long he had been standing there, watching me make little observations about his office within his office. He smiled at me. I returned the gesture.
“Take this with you. I think it is something you will enjoy and gain much from.”
“Thank you.” He handed me the book, I handed him my empty glass and left.
The next day at noon as I sat under a maple tree on the front lawn reading Great Expectations I watched Hans and Hattie who were sitting in a small white marquee celebrating their engagement with mutual friends. Their body language and their laughter made me sick. I was so ill with jealousy and I wished my friends were not all in classes so that I had somebody to talk to. I looked at Hattie and noticed how alike we were appearance-wise; Hans liked women with black hair and dark eyes. He liked women who were tall and slender. He liked smart women. Hans would have considered me if I wasn’t in his class; if it wasn’t illegal for a professor to be in a relationship with a student. Pity Hattie wasn’t one of his students. If I could take back my enrolment in Global Cinema I would. But as it stood, the semester was nearly over.
My best friend Julia has always asked me what I see in him. She has told me a million times that he is too old for me and perhaps I only like him because everyone else does. According to Julia it is always a competition with me and other women to see who will catch men first. I think that’s why Julia and I are best friends; we never compete with each other in anything.
Julia is a red head with brown eyes and a face covered in freckles. She reminds me of an Australian girl who was on exchange at our university last year. She speaks so softly that you always have to ask her to speak up because you missed her last sentence. Her family are quite poor and so would have never been able to afford the cost of studying at The Modern University, but anyone who has been here since the first grade is automatically accepted at university level.
The Modern University specialises in film and the arts. You won’t see a medicine or a law student here. I think that’s one of the reasons why The Modern University has such a great culture. When you leave school you know whether or not you want to stay to study here, and most people do stay. Everyone here has a common love for books and films so you never really dislike anybody for there is always someone to talk to about something that you love.
The only people you don’t mesh with as much are people like Hattie who hasn’t been here since the first grade and so don’t understand the culture. She arrived two years ago and if she didn’t start going out with Hans immediately I might have considered making more of an effort to befriend her. But without me she has done well enough on her own.
I looked at Hans and Hattie in the small white marquee and watched as they fell back on their chairs and landed on the grass. Hattie stood up and patted the dirt off her summer dress; Hans patted the dirt off the knees of his pressed black cords. They took up a glass of champagne each and toasted to falling down together and getting back up together; something fun young, in-love couples had started doing.
One of their guests remarked that the wedding invites would be splendid as they shared the same first initial. I wondered if I or any of my friends would be invited; probably not. Their engagement celebrations were coming to a close as Hans had a class to lecture at two o’clock, my Global Cinema class, but after failing the essay I didn’t think I would bother attending. I closed my book and walked inside and hoped I could find Julia.
She was not in our bedroom where I thought she might have been so I put my book on my bedside table and left our room. I walked down the north corridor on the second floor and stopped in front of a stained glass window overlooking the front lawn.
In that second that I saw Nazi soldiers shoot a student on the front lawn I heard the war siren sound inside the university and across its grounds. Hans and Hattie were still outside with their guests and having their backs to the soldiers they ran toward the university. Everyone ran but the front lawn was so large that most people were killed before they made it inside. Hattie and Hans were running as fast as they could; Hattie took off her heels so that she didn’t get stuck in the grass but her actions were in vain. She was shot in the back by a soldier wielding a rifle and she fell to the ground. Hans let go of her and continued running toward the building.
Students and teachers ran past me and I didn’t even notice. The only thing I cared to watch was Hans and I prayed to God he wouldn’t be shot. A bullet hit the stained glass window and just missed my face. I ducked and landed on the broken glass which cut into my palms and my stockinged knees. I straightened my posture so that I could get a better look and noticed a sniper shooting in my window again. I was stunned that he could see my gold star from where he stood on the front lawn.
Hans made it inside the building with a few others. I ran downstairs to the ground floor and after hearing soldiers’ voices, I backtracked into a second grade classroom. I tiptoed in between all of the out-of-place little wooden desks and their chairs and felt crayons crunch under my leather buckle shoes. The classroom was a mess; there were books and stray sheets of paper everywhere. Thank goodness the children would have been taken to what I hoped was safety. I crouched down behind the blackboard and waited to be killed because I was certain the soldiers would find me and kill me. A few minutes later Julia and three other girls were escorted into the classroom by soldiers.
“Julia!” I said.
“Clara!” she said.
She knelt down beside me and we hugged each other, thankful we were both alive.
“Hitler is here.” she said.
The man himself walked into the classroom and stood against a wall.
“Give me your earrings!”
I obeyed and took the backings off my earrings, took my earrings out of my ears and placed them onto his palm.
“All of you. Give me your earrings!”
Julia and the three other women took the backings off their earrings and gave them to Hitler. He left and closed the door behind him. We were left alone with Hitler’s soldiers in the classroom. They raped us one by one. I was first victim and Julia was second.
After coveting our earrings, he told us he would keep them and let us go. We were told to keep our ears bare until he had left the following morning. He told us that every other Jewish woman who was wearing a pair of earrings would be shot and that we were to think him a kind and generous man for sparing our lives. We lay on the classroom floor until there were no more tears left in our eyes to shed. We were alive and that’s all that mattered.
I stood up and pulled my briefs and stockings up. I waited for Julia to do the same. She was crying in a fetal position on the checked lino floor. We left the classroom and walked past a few soldiers who were stationed in a deserted corridor. They didn’t speak to us and we didn’t speak to them. My watch read five thirty and I led the girls to the kitchen where we would find food but no cooks for they had all been killed. We were starving and if we wanted to eat we would have to cook our own food. Usually we would assemble in the dining room for dinner where our meals would be waiting ready for us to sit down at a table with, but tonight, it would not be the same. There wasn’t a staff member around and the kitchen felt eerie. I opened a fridge and found a pot of leftover vegetable soup. I found a box of matches and lit the stove so that I could reheat the leftovers. Julia found some spoons and some bowls and when it was ready we sat on the dirty kitchen floor sipping the hot liquid from our spoons in the dark. We thought about calling our parents but they would either be dead or in hiding and we couldn’t risk their lives simply because Hitler had spared ours.
“We are alive…” I said.
“We are alive…” Julia said.
“We are alive…”
“We are alive…”
“We are alive…”
We all said it two or three times each hoping it would sink in. But the reality of war would not sink in for a very long time. All German university students were told to leave the campus and most Jewish students lay dead in classrooms or on the front lawn. We knew Hitler and his soldiers were staying at The Modern University overnight, in a room we hoped we wouldn’t get too near, for fear we might bump into them and Hitler would regret his decision. As far as we knew, we were the only survivors and every face that was familiar to us would from then on be forgotten and lost to death.
We left the kitchen and walked up several flights of stairs until we arrived on the landing of the fifth floor where our rooms were. The three women who were with Julia and I went to their rooms to retrieve their belongings and their mattresses and brought everything into the room Julia and I shared. With three mattresses covering our bedroom floor there was not an inch of floorboard to be seen. Julia and I helped the three women make their beds and after checking the door was locked several times, it was about eight thirty when we all cried ourselves to sleep. I dreamt about my earrings that I no longer owned. They were gold Jubilee earrings. Jubilee was a brand that was fashionable then. They were round and leaf-patterned and they had a small turquoise gem in the centre. I had worn them every day since I was seventeen.