Eissler smiled at the irony of the situation: here he was, huddled inside the tiny space behind the false wall, hardly daring to breathe for fear of being heard by the British troops clomping in and out of the bedroom.
He’d been resting fully-dressed on the bed when he heard the boots on the stairs and rushed into the space, pulling the ply-board panel closed behind him, flush to the rest of the false wall, and fixing it with the catches. The panel was covered with the same floral wallpaper as the four walls of the bedroom and virtually undetectable, unless you knew what to look for.
By the dim light of a single bulb hanging on a nail, Eissler observed the space: a strip of about a metre wide that ran the length of the wall opposite the door. The panel through which he’d entered had two handles he’d used to pull it towards him to close the space. He sat next to the panel now, listening.
He could hear voices in the bedroom; one of them sounded like it belonged to an angry officer. Eissler’s English was poor, but as far as he could make out, the officer was ordering his troops to carry on searching because “he must be here.”
“That’s right; I must, and I am!” he thought to himself, smiling again.
At the foot of the false wall, up one end, there was a tiny gap between wall and floor, and through this a thin strip of light edged into the space—daylight from the single window in the bedroom. Later, he would put the bulb out so that light from his side wasn’t visible to the soldiers.
He began to take stock of his situation, working his plans methodically through his mind.
“I’ll wait until tomorrow. They’ll have got tired of searching by then. I should be able to sneak out and down the fire escape at the back. And if I can make it to the station, and if I can get on one of the trains heading south to Belgium—my papers are good enough, I’m sure—I can get far enough away. Where people don’t know me.”
The raid had caught him by surprise and he’d literally dived through the rectangular opening in the false wall, built by the apartment’s former owners. One thing was flashing his papers to overworked soldiers at the station checkpoint, another was having them scrutinised carefully by troops that he now knew had been actually targeting him here. So he’d taken no chances, although he’d been caught unprepared and now found himself closeted in the space, without food or water.
“But I’ll be out of here by tomorrow evening, so that shouldn’t be a problem.”
He went over and over again in his mind the plan to get out of the city—the route he’d take to the station, what he’d say if stopped, how he’d arrange a hat and pull up his collar so as not to be recognised by the locals.
After some time he saw that the strip of light at the bottom of the wall was dimming, so he put the light out and lay on the bare floor, on his front to avoid snoring. He slept fitfully—the stress of the past hours and the uncertainty of his future playing on his mind.
Shouting woke him—the British officer again, yelling at some subordinate and banging his fist on the table by the bedroom window. Eissler got carefully to his feet and stretched; he was stiff and aching all over, and desperately thirsty. By the strip of light it was daytime, but he had no idea what time exactly since in the rush to reach the space, he’d left his watch on the bedside cabinet. The fact had no doubt led the officer to believe that Eissler had fled the scene in a hurry.
“But why are they still, here?” Eissler wondered. “If they haven’t found me, they must think I got away. Unless . . .”
It struck him like a thunderbolt. The apartment was extremely comfortable—the Cohens had been quite wealthy and had furnished it in style and quality. What if the British officer had decided to make it his quarters, just as Eissler had done?
“That will make it more difficult, for sure. But not impossible,” he reassured himself. “He can’t stay in the bedroom forever. Sooner or later he’ll have to go out on duty. I’ll just need to listen hard and choose my moment.”
Eissler listened hard all day, but there were always voices in the bedroom—sometimes reasonable, sometimes raised. He spent the day stretching and walking gingerly from one end of the space to the other; he found one floorboard that creaked, and after he stepped on it he stood still for what seemed like an eternity to make sure that no one had heard him. He noted where the floorboard was so that he wouldn’t make the mistake of stepping on it again.
At one point in what he imagined to be the afternoon, he realised that he needed to relieve himself. He was still confident that he could get out soon, but he was desperately thirsty now, and his army training had taught him a trick for such a situation as this.
He moved to the opposite end of the space from the strip of light and opened his trousers, urinating carefully into his cupped hands and holding the flow while he raised them to his mouth. He repeated the action until he’d emptied his bladder, retching as the warm liquid passed down his throat. Then he squatted, almost vomiting again at his own stench and inability to dispose of what he’d deposited on the bare floor.
That night was as uncomfortable as the first, his sleep just as fitful. He got up when the first light seeped in through the thin gap at the bottom of the wall and started walking to and fro to get his muscles and joints working. He stopped occasionally to press his head against the plywood; voices still. His head was feeling very light.
A third night. And a third morning. When he tried to get up, his legs buckled and he slid down into a sitting position and stayed there, staring at the floral wallpaper that covered the surface of the real wall—the same paper that was in the bedroom.
The flowers were roses, three different ones, repeated horizontally and diagonally. Eissler continued to stare at the petals of the roses, the curves, the curls, the overlaps. After a while, he fancied that one of the curls in the petals began to resemble an ear. He closed his eyes, shook his head, opened his eyes again. Yes, one of the roses began to take on human features—an ear, a cheek, a forehead, a nose, lips, a chin. He cocked his head to one side and now it was definitely like a human face, and . . .
He hissed the name in his mind but was sure he hadn’t actually uttered it; self-preservation and the need to remain quiet superseded the surprise at what he was seeing. He felt a grin on his lips, remembering Cohen’s fate. The amusement quickly turned to unease, though, as the rose-face stared back at him accusingly.
His gaze moved to a second rose. It was just a rose. It was jus— wait! If he cocked his head the other way . . . there was Moskowitz! Cohen and Moskowitz. In the roses. On the wall. This wasn’t funny now. He screwed his eyes shut to escape the sight of them. But he couldn’t escape the memory.
A month earlier: the raid on the ghetto, the dragging of men, women and children out of the buildings, the relentless searches and uncovering of secret hiding places, the pleading of fathers of families, offering money or diamonds—“Take me, please don’t harm my wife and children!”—the acceptance of the bribes, then the treachery of taking all of the people anyway—to the station, to the railway wagons. The faces of terror, white with the unknown.
He opened his eyes but the roses were still there, Cohen and Moskowitz were still there, and now the third rose, old Mevrouw Simons, who Eissler had beaten down the stairs when she resisted; she’d gone to the station with a broken arm and would have lasted no time at all at her final destination.
And now the roses were laughing. They were laughing out loud, and Eissler had his finger to his lips, gesturing desperately for them to stop making so much noise as he would surely be discovered. But they kept on, getting louder if anything. There was only one thing for it.
Eissler began picking at the wall, tearing the roses off. It took some doing as it was thick wallpaper, and he was breaking fingernails as he went. The roses were coming away, disappearing, but there were a lot on the three real walls inside the space—the long one and the metre-wide ends. It took him what seemed like hours to remove them all, especially as he had to do the work as carefully and quietly as he could.
Eventually, though, there were no roses left except the ones he couldn’t reach at the top of the walls, but they were out of sight and out of mind. He sat down at the clean end of the space and enjoyed the silence; no more laughter from Cohen, Moskowitz and Simons. He’d disposed of them again, this time definitively.
But then his gaze fell on a ragged gap in the wallpaper that his tearing had created. It was a gap in the wallpaper. Just a gap. A gap, but with small pieces of wallpaper still sticking to the now-exposed plaster. And the small pieces of wallpaper . . . resembled eyes. And they were staring back at him. There was no laughter now but only a stare, a deep, immensely sad stare. And Eissler fancied he recognised those eyes.
A couple of weeks before, he’d assisted his superior, SS-Oberscharführer Silberbauer, in uncovering a secret annex to a building on Prinsengracht. They’d found eight people hiding there, one a 15-year-old girl. It was her eyes he saw now. He scratched at them, removing the scraps of paper from the plaster and breathing a sigh of relief when it was done.
His gaze wandered across the wall again and stopped. There, a foot or so from the first gap, was another, and in that second gap . . . scraps of paper still stuck to the plaster. Eyes. He stood now and inspected the rest of the wall. More gaps. More tiny scraps of paper. More eyes.
He set about scratching at all the gaps he could find, scratching at the eyes. All of his fingernails were shredded, the tips of his fingers bleeding. And as he scratched, he left smears of blood across the grey plaster, and the smears became features, faces, the terrified faces of people he’d ripped from their hiding places in buildings he’d raided.
Now the laughter returned—high-pitched, hysterical laughter. He threw himself on the floor and clamped his hands to his ears, but the laughter was inside him, was him. Then the sound of splintering wood, daylight flooding the space, voices, English voices.
And the screams. His screams.