Let’s pretend I’m the German and you’re the Jew. I don’t want to be the German—to admit to being the villain!—but I’m writing this story, so I’m the responsible party. The one digging around in the bottom muck of the soul. I understand you don’t want to be the Jew. Obviously! Who would want to be the Jew in a story with Germans? Only a crazy person. But the roles have to be divided somehow.

I’ve written this story before—the story of my great-uncle’s arrest by the SS—but I was younger then. In those days, my fantasies were heroic: I survived the camps, spent four years in an attic, fought with the Maquis. The first time I wrote my great-uncle’s story, I imagined myself suffering as he had.

That story was short-listed for a major prize—a thrill until the judge explained that what had made her decision difficult was the paucity of choices. The finalists had all been terrible. So I re-wrote the story. I’ve been re-writing it for thirty years, and every time, I hear my great-uncle say, Wrong again. You’ll never understand. In real life, everyone says, my great-uncle was the kindest of men, who would never have criticized someone’s story-telling, but, still, I keep at it, hoping to do better.

It might be too late to tell this story—too many other wars bloodying the decades in between—but I’ll try once more. I’ll picture myself as the enemy this time, to see what light the darkness sheds. You’ll be the kindest of men, and I’ll write out your death warrant.

···

Imagine, then, that it’s spring, 1944. Chestnut trees are blooming all over Paris, the flower beds in the Luxembourg have been laid in neat, geometric patterns. For the first time in years, you’re not thinking about a leg of lamb, sweetbreads, a tongue and watercress salad. You’re not preoccupied with the tiniest particulars of long-ago meals—the feel of a breadcrumb pressed into your fingertip, the sheen on a pat of butter. Nor are you watching every shadow for the officer who will step out and order you to drop your pants. You aren’t dreading the embarrassment you’d feel, with your underwear around your ankles, handing over papers that claim you’re a gentile.

You’re in the Luxembourg Gardens, and you can see the easel and paints in front of you, but you can’t remember setting any of it up. Apparently, your idea was to paint the fountain where, after the long winter, children are once again racing their boats. Their excitement fills the air, and you wish they’d shut up. You’ve always wanted a houseful of children, but now you want silence. The fountain isn’t an original subject, but you’re not an original painter. It’s just a hobby. You’re a gynecologist—one of the best in Caen—though you haven’t practiced for three years; since you moved to Paris and became Vincent Leclerc, gentile, you haven’t even owned a stethoscope.

Earlier today, Madame Compte, the concierge, hauled herself upstairs to see you: blue apron, red face, red hands. The war has cost her ten kilos, but she still shuffles like a fat person, and, because she’s in menopause, she sweats profusely. She laughs that she’s the only Parisian who doesn’t mind the lack of coal, and you smile vaguely, as if you had no idea why she overheats.

But this morning, she wasn’t laughing. “Monsieur Leclerc,” she said, and before she went on, you knew: Raphael, your older brother, has been arrested. Madame Compte is the one who must have realized you were Jews, who must have informed on him. Maybe. Or maybe not. It’s impossible to know. But if not Madame Compte, who? Hardly anyone else even knows you and Raphael are brothers. Madame Compte will have informed on you, too, then. How else to explain the delicious scent of paté and cognac on her breath?

But then, what? A wave of regret, and she came to warn you? And here you are now, in the Luxembourg, painting. It seems there’s helium in your lungs, and where your stomach was, nothing, as if you’d been neatly eviscerated. And then your body rushes back into itself, a sensation of pins and needles, the blood in your veins so heavy that the effort of holding yourself upright makes you tremble. But still, you aren’t thinking clearly. You’ve forgotten so much in the last few hours that it seems your life happened to someone else, an acquaintance you barely recall. You have no idea how you got to the Luxembourg.

Oh, Raphael, who taught me everything I know. Who taught me nothing. Who, until he became his own gentile (Jean Carreau, landscaper) was a pediatrician in Caen. A lover of married women, father to patients all over the Calvados, who called him Docteur, and did not know they were part Jewish.

There’s a safe house with a well-stocked attic in Orsay where you can go if you hurry. Tins and tins of food. More food than you’ve seen in years, to last however many years remain. Peas, asparagus, tomatoes, anchovies, rice. Sweetened condensed milk. It was your idea. Chocolate and cigarettes. Food from before the war. No one else had your prescience. As soon as Poland fell, you remembered the rickets of your childhood and wrote to your niece in Paris: Horde. Store as much food as you can where no one else will find it. There’s a place in Orsay. You and your siblings will still be able to eat if France goes to war.

She did what you said—the nieces and nephews hang on your every word; you’re the young, fun uncle—but your sister, Suzanne, the children’s mother, sent her sons and daughters to America, and then Suzanne and your parents were arrested in the street, and you changed your name—Kaminsky gave you and Raphael the forgeries before you’d even asked—and you moved to Paris with one change of clothes and a set of paints. Raphael found an apartment on rue d’Assas, you found one around the corner on rue Madame.

You’d never intended that food for yourself, but who could you feed, once you were so newly, lightly, a gentile? So the attic with its stores became yours and Raphael’s, though neither of you went there, or spoke of the food, hidden away for the worst of emergencies; you barely spoke at all as gentiles, barely set foot in each other’s apartments.

Clearly, your memory isn’t completely shot. You can reconstruct the events of your life, even the events of this morning, if you put your mind to it, but so much is breaking apart; who can say which pieces are important? Madame Compte at the door, the news about Raphael, the sight of your suitcase, already packed for just this moment—and then the circular staircase down to the lobby, the weight of the easel under your arm, right onto rue Madame, left onto rue de Fleurus. The bright spring air, the gates of the Luxembourg. Details as tedious to list now as the muscles of the foot, and as seemingly irrelevant: you’re a gynecologist, after all.

Once, you dynamited a munitions train. You know this to be true, as you know that you’re thirty-two, widowed, and responsible for various crimes against the state, including the distribution of pamphlets, as punishable an offense as the dynamite and the composition of your own blood. “Once,” sounds like the beginning of time, but it was just two years ago, when you were still a Jew, before you went into hiding out in the open. After dynamiting the train, you crawled away under a blackberry thicket. There was a late frost, and you could probably see your breath, but that’s too fine a detail to picture now; you can’t imagine the weight of the dynamite in your hands, or the chill of the iron rails.

What you do remember, as vividly as if her scent were still on your hands, is Mademoiselle Maurette. Her thin, reedy voice, as if she’d never fully come into the world. You were just out of medical school, but you had examined hundreds of women before her, and never with any desire; you hadn’t guessed that desire could stun you this way, in the middle of an examining room with a speculum in your hand. Docteur, she said, in that small, empty voice. My cramps. They’re so painful that every month I vomit for a week. You lay the speculum down and put your hands in your pockets, where you found a piece of candy, which you unwrapped and put in your mouth. Buying time. It’s the candy you remember most clearly, butterscotch. Some nights, weak with hunger in your gentile apartment, you’ve thought of going to Orsay and plundering all those supplies—you’ve eaten almost nothing but turnips and horse marrow for a month, and the rickets have come back—but you’ve always been able to resist temptation. You dip your brush, mark the canvas, dip again, mark, dip. Raphael will be dead soon, you hope. You hope it will go quickly for him.

A giant marigold? That might be it, that smear of red on the canvas. And next to it, it seems, a tiny rubber tree. This isn’t the way you paint. It’s hard enough to paint what’s right in front of you, to be faithful to the minute, incredible, shifting details of ordinary life: the flickering, silver underside of a leaf, the bones of a woman’s wrist. Who could ever record such things the way they are? The blur of children playing. If you had the six children you’ve always wanted, you’d wear them out making them sit for portraits. Best not to picture a wife, but children—they’re always a possibility. Six children by six different women or six by one: three boys followed by three girls. A house ringing with laughter, toys everywhere, music, squabbles. Maybe more than six. You might need to keep procreating until your oldest has children of his own, so there’s always a tiny one underfoot, or sitting in a corner somewhere, a plump little Buddha, earnestly turning the pages of an upside-down book—but you’d like the children at the fountain to be quiet. You yourself are very quiet, standing at your easel as if you’d been ordered to. As if, if you stood long enough, you might dissolve into the bright, windy day.

Years later, people will speculate about why you didn’t run. He was too sad, they’ll say. He was in shock. He’d used up all the adrenalin of a lifetime, and nothing further could alarm him.

Three and a half years of evading capture: even asleep, dreaming your fitful dreams of food, you were afraid. You’d see something on the ground—a glistening lamb shank, or a bowl of ice-cream—and you’d bend down for it, but it was always a trick: everything revealed itself to be a yellow star, a Kippah, a Tallit. And how was that possible? A bowl of vanilla ice-cream! Who could mistake that for a piece of cloth? You wept, trying to explain yourself, insisting the game was rigged, you ought to be given another chance. You sobbed, howling finally, and that was the stupidest move of all: if you would stop, they might forget about you, and you could slip away. You awoke on your back with your eyes dry, your arms frozen at your sides. There were variations in the opening scenes, but the end was always the same: the shouting, the pointless self-defense. You slept two hours at a stretch, three at the most; the rest of the time, you were in the back room of your apartment, working on pamphlets, and little by little your heart stopped racing, because the typesetter was an old Linotype Model 8, half-broken, and it required all your attention.

Until the day you transformed yourself into an ordinary, anti-Semitic little bourgeois, and then you were just afraid, and there was nothing to do. Why lock yourself now in the half-light of the attic, and begin the infinite process of doling smaller and smaller portions of tinned food to yourself so that it will last forever? Like the turtle in the arithmetic problem who, going always half the distance he went before, never reaches the wall.

···

Prisoner’s Name: Raphael Naquet. Alias(es): Jean Carreau. Race: Jew. Criminal Activities: Terrorism. List of crimes:

Somewhere in the city an SS officer is filling out the paperwork on Raphael; it shouldn’t take long, and when he’s finished, he’ll come for you. Who is this man, so hell-bent on sending you to your deaths? Let’s assume he isn’t a monstrous aberration. Let’s assume, given the endless repetition of atrocities throughout history, that he’s an ordinary man. I have to give him qualities of my own, if I’m to be him, so let’s say he has a headache. He’s already taken three powders, and he can still feel it, like a knife lodged in his eye. The point is not whether or not I “create sympathy;” the point is to imagine us as one. So: my head hurts. Three powders and I can still feel it, a blade stuck in the optic nerve. The light’s too bright. Everyone raved about Paris in the springtime, how beautiful the light is; and Greta said, oh the girls in Paris, you’ll have a good time, wanting me to reassure her.

I have to imagine his wife, too: Greta. What he thinks of her. No girl in Paris could compare to you, Greta, with your fat belly and your mustache.

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