Rory Clements introduces an exclusive extract from his latest novel.
In 1939, Jews in Nazi Germany were desperate to get out of the country, but that was not easy. Not only did they need an exit visa, they also needed a permit to stay in their destination country. Because of this, the understaffed British passport office in Berlin was besieged day and night. In Nucleus, the second in my Tom Wilde series, Lydia Morris has been working in London with the Quakers on the Kindertransport programme which brought 10,000 Jewish children to safety in Britain. When one of the children disappears, she travels to Berlin to try to find him. This is what she encounters…
The queues stretched all down Tiergartenstrasse, on the south side of the great gardens that breathed fresh air into the teeming centre of the city. The huge old mansions and palaces here were some of the grandest properties in Berlin, once the homes of the nobility and wealthy industrialists, but now they as likely as not housed embassies and their offices. In better days, their view over the park had been spectacular, even enjoyed by Boswell with a glass of cherry schnapps in his hand, yet now the outlook was distressing: a long line of downcast human beings, perhaps a mile long, quiet, orderly and patient, yet desperate. Most were women or elderly men, all Jewish, all seeking the precious visa that would enable them to leave this hellish country behind.
SS officers lounged back in an open-topped Mercedes, idly watching the waiting line, and occasionally taking notes or photographs. An open-topped carrier with yet more troopers pulled up, this time with the Brownshirts of the Sturmabteilung or SA.
A strange and horrible wailing rose from the long line. There were gasps and tears and quaking. Some people seemed close to collapse.
Lydia watched open-mouthed. She had heard of these things from Bertha, who had been here soon after Kristallnacht the previous autumn, but hearing things second-hand and seeing for yourself were very different.
The SA stormtroopers, all of whom had pistols and clubs, leapt from the rear of their vehicle and began to strut up and down the line, demanding papers. Lydia had stopped on the other side of the road. She felt both terror and fury at the sight of the tormentors with their shiny high boots, their brown shirts and the swastika armbands on their right sleeves.
One of the Brownshirts gently removed the glasses of a middle-aged woman and examined them closely. He said something to her, then held the glasses to his mouth and breathed vapour on the lenses before rubbing them against his tunic to clean them. He smiled and handed them back to her. She nodded her thanks and reached out to take them, but the SA man’s fingers opened and the spectacles fell to the pavement, shattering the glass. He grinned and quite deliberately crunched the heel of his high boot into the broken and twisted remnants. Shrugging, he took hold of her nose between thumb and forefinger. ‘They were too small for this thing anyway.’ Laughing, he moved on to another victim.
Lydia wanted to slap his bully’s face, but she knew it would not end well. She had to swallow her revulsion. As she was turning away she saw two black-clad officers climb from the Mercedes car and approach the queue with a bucket. She was close enough to see them hand the bucket to an elderly man and hear one of the SS men say, ‘Säubern Sie das Auto. Bitte.’
The old man, bewildered and shaking, took the bucket. He stood there, unable to move, clearly petrified.
‘What are you waiting for, Jew? Get on with it.’
He upturned the bucket to show them. ‘I cannot clean your car. There is no water in it. No cloth.’
‘Do you not salute an officer?’
The old man’s eyes flicked from left to right and back. The women and men around him averted their eyes, afraid to attract the attention of the SS. The old man held out his arm straight, as ordered. But it still wasn’t enough.
‘Say the words, kike.’
‘Heil Hitler.’ It was as if the words would choke him.
‘You are Jewish, are you not?’
‘Yes, sir.’ The old man bowed his head.
‘Then you should be circumcised.’
‘Yes, I am, sir.’
The old man was trembling. ‘Sir, I cannot. There are ladies present.’
‘Pah. I am sure they have seen such things. Down with your trousers – or would you like me to remove them for you?’
Gingerly, the old man undid his belt and fly buttons. Slowly, he lowered his trousers a fraction.
‘Well? Where is it? Where is your Jew’s cock?’
Shamed and humiliated, the man exposed himself. The SS officer leant forward and examined him. ‘Yes,’ he said at last. ‘That is a Jew’s cock. You smell disgusting. Now pull up your filthy trousers, find some soap and water and a cloth and clean the car. And make it shine. If I see any dust or grease, you will be on a charge. Next stop Sachsenhausen.’
‘But, sir, if I go I will lose my place in the line.’
The other SS man took his Luger from its holster and pointed it at the old man’s chest. ‘I will count to five.’
The old man, still struggling with his trousers, waited until the count of three, transfixed by fear and confusion, then someone at his side suddenly pushed him in the back and he stumbled forward and began to move. ‘I will go, I will go.’ He could not go fast, no more than a shuffle. He walked on his old legs across the street, trying to button himself all the while, and Lydia saw now that he had a limp. He was going towards one of the great houses, to beg water and materials for his chore.
Behind him, the SS and SA officers were laughing.
Lydia was stiff with impotent rage. She knew in this moment that the pacifism of the Quakers was beyond her. She turned away, helpless.
This description of the scene outside the passport office in Tiergartenstrasse, Berlin, is fictional, but is drawn from various sources. Particularly inspirational was Michael Smith’s book Foley, which tells the true story of Captain Frank Foley, Britain’s passport control officer in Berlin as well as MI6 station chief. It is estimated he saved the lives of 10,000 Jews by disregarding the rule book and handing out visas to all and sundry.