First published in 1942, The Seventh Cross is a wartime classic ripe for rediscovery. We publish in hardback and ebook on 7th June, and advance praise is already rolling in from some incredible voices. Below is a short extract from this brilliant book – add it to your wish list now and we’d love to hear what you think once finished copies are available.
Elli went to her room. The cot stood at the foot of her bed, but it was empty tonight. Her guest should have been here by now, but Elli decided not to wait any longer. She opened the package, fingered the wool, and cast on the first stitches. She had met the man she was now expecting, Heinrich Kuebler, by chance. Chance, if you let it take over, is not blind at all, as they say, but clever, even witty. You just have to trust in it completely. If you interfere and try to help it along, then things get bungled and chance mistakenly gets the blame. If you just leave everything to it and yield to it completely, then it usually arrives at the right outcome quickly, unpredictably, and directly.
A friend from the office had convinced Elli to go to a dance. At first she regretted having agreed to go. But then at the dance a waiter behind her dropped a glass. She turned round to look, and at the same time Kuebler, who just happened to be walking through the room, turned round too. He was tall and dark haired with good teeth.
Seeing a slight resemblance to George in his posture and smile, Elli felt her face become animated; it became more beautiful. Kuebler noticed. He stopped and approached her. They danced into the early hours of the morning. From close up he didn’t resemble George at all, of course. He was a decent young man. After that, he frequently picked her up to go dancing, and on Sundays they went on outings into the Taunus Mountains. They kissed and were happy.
She had casually told him about her first husband. ‘I had bad luck there’ – that’s how she described it to him. Heinrich encouraged Elli to get rid of George once and for all. And she decided to take care of the matter on her own. Then, unexpectedly one day, she received a permit to visit the Westhofen concentration camp. She went to see her father. She hadn’t asked him for advice in a long time.
‘You have to go,’ the paperhanger said. ‘I’ll come along.’
Elli hadn’t applied for this visitor’s permit; she actually found it unwelcome. The permit had been issued for a different reason. Since the people at Westhofen had been unable to get anything out of their prisoner by beating and kicking him, or by withholding food and keeping him confined in the dark, it had occurred to them to get his wife to come to see him. Wife and child – that usually made an impression on a man. So Elli and her father asked for a day off from their respective jobs. They hadn’t told anyone else in the family about this distressing trip.
During the train ride Elli wished she were lying on a Taunus meadow with Heinrich. Mettenheimer longed to be hanging wallpaper. After they got off the train they walked side by side along a country road, passing through a couple of grape-growing villages. Elli felt as if she’d shrunk back into a little girl and sought her father’s hand. It was soft and dry. Both of them felt apprehensive.
As they came to the first houses of the village of Westhofen, people watched them with a sort of abstract, vague pity, as if they were on their way to a hospital or a cemetery. Oh, how painful it was to walk
through the bustle and cheerful excitement in the wine-growing villages. Why couldn’t she just be one of these villagers? Why couldn’t she be the one rolling that vat diagonally across the street to the tinsmith? Why couldn’t she be the woman scrubbing the sieve on her windowsill? Why couldn’t she help wash the yard where the wine press was to be set up? Instead she and her father, with unbearable feelings of foreboding, had to walk through all this everyday life on their strange errand. A young fellow with a broad head, shorn bald in a summer haircut, and looking more like a riverman than a farmer, approached them and said seriously and calmly, ‘You have to go around up there, across the field, all the way to the wall.’
An elderly woman, who could have been his mother, was watching from a window and nodded.
Does she want to console me? Elli wondered. George doesn’t concern me any more. They climbed up the field. Walked along a wall studded with pieces of glass. To the left was a small factory: Matthias Frank & Sons. Now they could already see the camp gate with the guards. The country road passed right by the gate, taking a sharp turn whose two sides were formed by the walls of the so-called interior camp. The inner camp gate was thus the only part abutting the country road. It was obvious that the Rhine was somewhere back there, but it couldn’t be seen from here. Dead, stagnant water glittered here and there on the brown, damp soil. Mettenheimer decided to stop in the garden of an inn they came to and wait there for Elli. From this point on she had to make her way by herself. Elli was afraid. But she told herself that George didn’t concern her any more. She wasn’t going to let herself be swayed by his special situation, or by his familiar face, his eyes, his smile.
Back then George had already been in Westhofen for a long time. He had gone through dozens of interrogations, and suffering and torment enough for a whole generation engulfed by war or some other disaster. And the torments would go on for him, tomorrow or perhaps even the next minute. By then George already knew that only death could help him. He knew the terrible power that had overwhelmed his young life, and he also knew his own power. He knew now who he was.
That first moment Elli thought they’d brought in the wrong man.
She raised her hands to her ears – a characteristic gesture with which she used to make sure that her earrings were still in place. Then her arms dropped. She stared at the strange man standing between two SA guards. George had been a tall man; this man was almost as short as her father, with buckling knees. Then she recognised his smile. It was the old smile, unmistakable, the same half-joyful, half-scornful smile with which he’d taken her measure at their first encounter. Of course it now was not intended to beguile a young woman away from one’s dear friend.
In his tortured mind George tried to form a thought. Why had they brought this woman here? What was their purpose? In his state of exhaustion and physical suffering, he was afraid he would overlook something important, some trap.
He stared at Elli. To him she was just as strange a creature as he was to her: the little upturned felt hat, the curly hair, the earrings.
He kept watching her. Bit by bit he began to remember how she had been involved with him before, not much after all. Five, six pairs of eyes were observing every change in his face, still disfigured by the most recent punches. I have to say something to this man, Elli thought. She said, ‘The child is doing well.’
He perked up. His gaze focused. What could she have meant by that? She must have meant something special; maybe she was bringing him a message. He was afraid he was too weak to work out what it meant. He said, ‘Yes?’
She could have recognised him by that look he gave her. His eyes were fixed as intensely and fervently on her half-open lips as they had been the first time they met. What information would come out of that mouth now to fill his life once more with strength and excitement?
After a long, agonising silence, during which she was probably searching for the right words, she said, ‘He’ll be going to kindergarten soon.’
‘Yes,’ George said. How agonising it was to have to think so quickly and clearly with his disintegrating mind. What did she mean by ‘going to kindergarten’? He’s doing well and starts kindergarten? Probably it had something to do with the reorganisation Hagenauer had talked about when he was brought in here four months ago after the most recent party leaders were arrested. His smile became brighter.
‘Do you want to see a picture of him?’ Elli asked, searching in her
little purse, which the eyes of the guards were now fixed on too. She took out a small photograph pasted on cardboard: a child playing with a rattle. George bent over the picture, frowning with the effort of trying to make out something important. He looked up, looked at Elli, looked back at the picture. He shrugged. He glowered at Elli as if she were making fun of him.
A guard shouted, ‘Visiting time is over.’ They both flinched. George asked quickly, ‘How’s my mother?’ Elli said, ‘She’s well.’ She hadn’t seen the woman, who had always behaved strangely, almost disagreeably to her, for a year and a half. George called out, ‘And my little brother?’ He seemed suddenly to come alive, to wake up. His entire body twitched.
It seemed no less dreadful to Elli that from one second to the next he was suddenly taking on a more human appearance. George called out, ‘How is—’ But he was grabbed from both sides, turned around, and led out of the room.
Elli couldn’t remember how she’d got back to where her father was waiting. She knew only that he had pressed her to him and that the innkeeper and his wife and two other women had stood there watching and that she didn’t care. One of the women had patted her shoulder and the other had touched her hair. The innkeeper’s wife had picked her hat up off the floor and brushed the dust off it. No one had said a word. For that the concentration camp wall was too close. Their consolation had been as mute as her sorrow.
Once she was back home, Elli sat down and wrote a letter to Heinrich, asking him not to pick her up at the office any more; in fact, asking him not to come to see her at all any more.