I went to see Else’s mother today, feeling a terrific sadness, a prickly, gnawing pain. Else was one of the murdered performers in the all-girl revue where I danced before the show closed.
I found her mother to be a stalwart, honest woman dressed in tenement drab with reddened hands and pale round cheeks. But with a cold heart.
I had expected she would want to talk about her daughter, a slender wisp of a girl with carrot-colored sleek hair cut in a swinging pageboy and blue-red lips. Else had always spoken of her “Mutti” with a warmth that made me yearn for my own mother.
Imagine how surprised I was when Frau Müller refused to speak to me about her daughter. Slammed the door in my face. She wanted nothing to do with me, calling me a Tauentzienmadel, a streetwalker, and telling me her daughter had gotten what she deserved because she’d gone on the stage.
I should have gone on my way, left her to rot with her ugly, sordid words, but I didn’t.
My own mother had said those same words to me when I was assaulted by a man hanging around the theater back home in New York. I fought back her accusations, explaining how he waited for me after the show, followed me, then cornered me in a dark alley, ripping off my clothes and trying to rape me.
But Else couldn’t fight back. She was dead. A horrible, gruesome murder of passion, her body mutilated. I wasn’t going to let her mother defile her beautiful soul with lies and misplaced platitudes about virtues and morals.
Else was a good girl, always on time for rehearsals and humming a tune as she practiced her time step, the big red bows on her tap shoes pert and crisp, like the beat of her taps. She had the quickest feet I’d ever seen.
Determined to make Else’s mother listen to me, I started back up to the fifth floor walk-up when I collided with a young man racing down the winding stairway. A Brownshirt. He pushed me out of his way as if I didn’t exist.
I started to say something to him, but I’d seen ruffians like him in the beer halls, strutting around in their black jackboots, grabbing anyone they didn’t like, kicking and beating them with iron bars.
I heard him slam the front door. He was gone. I let go of the breath I’d been holding and raced back up the stairway. Standing outside the apartment, I knocked on the door. No answer. Then I heard a woman crying.
I peeked inside and saw the older woman sobbing her heart out. I put my arms around her to comfort her and she clung to me, grabbing me and not letting me go.
“Please forgive me, Fräulein, for saying such horrible things about Else,” she said in whispers, so fearful she was about being overheard, “but my son Hans makes me say these things to strangers.”
“Why?” I asked, not understanding.
“Else would not join the Nazi party as he demanded, then she spoke out against them in public,” she continued. “Hans says I must denounce her–”
He must be the young Brownshirt I’d seen.
“–but I can’t! She was my daughter and I loved her.” She let out a deep, heavy sigh. “I miss her so much.”
I said simply, “I miss her, too.”
I spent the afternoon with Else’s mother, two women speaking in low whispers, remembering the life of a young girl whose courage inspired me, while the shadows of war leapt around us like cold, dank creatures of the night, threatening to consume us.
I never forgot the Brownshirts and their raucous nighttime political rallies with flaming yellow torches, billowing banners and red armbands tightening the noose around anyone who did not follow them. The Nazis claimed to offer the workers a path to self-glory and urged the men to stand up and fight for the Fatherland.
But it would be the mothers like Else’s who suffered.
Lady Eve Marlowe
on this Mother’s Day