Refugee

Contributed by on 20/01/11

“It would help if you told me the truth,” the doctor said as he dried his hands. He faced the sink and a bank of enormous windows with pale-yellow painted frames. He ground his teeth together, trying to retain his professional composure. He turned around again and confronted the young woman who was perched in her silky slip on the edge of the draped table.

She clenched an unlighted cigarette between the first two fingers of her left hand, and held it in the air as if about to take a drag. She glanced to her left, at her pink and brown shirt-waist dress hanging from a hook on the back of the examining room door. She slowly returned her gaze to the figure of the young army doctor. She stretched her red lips into a smile. “What ‘truth’ do you wish to know, Dr. Stewart?” she asked in English. Her tone was melodious, and she wore her German accent like a fashionable hat, as if she could remove it at will if she so desired.

Army Lieutenant Martin Stewart, physician and section chief at the 279th Army Station Hospital in the American sector of Berlin, stuffed his stethoscope into one pocket of his white, wrinkled lab coat. “Your name, to start,” he answered.

“A gentleman would give a girl a light,” she said, bringing the cigarette close to her ruby mouth.

“No,” he said shortly. “Not in here.”

She shrugged slightly but didn’t lower her fingers. “I told you, my name is Lotte. Lotte Schmidt.”

“Every female civilian we see here is named ‘Schmidt.’” He strode behind her, to the metal and glass cabinet along the wall that was partially stocked with supplies like bandages and medicines. Not the penicillin though — that new miracle drug was locked in a special refrigerator. He opened one of the doors and removed some skin salve and gauze. He reflexively glanced at her back, and froze.

She thrust her shoulders up and forward. The muscles along her ribs seemed to ripple. She averted her head somewhat, but did not look all the way behind her. “What is the matter, Herr Docter?” she asked, knowing exactly what it was that had stunned the man into silence.

He slammed the aluminum frame; the glass jingled. He returned to a position in front of her crossed legs and stockinged-feet. He clutched the salve and box of bandages in one fist. “I’ve seen just about every kind of burn wound and destruction of human tissue possible. I’ve examined the dead and treated allied and enemy injured alike. You want to be honest with me, for a change? What’s the story here?”

She bowed her head and brought her hands into her lap, holding her precious cigarette in her palm. Her longish golden hair, curled up on one side and bobbed at her shoulders seemed to fray. Dark circles appeared around her blue-green eyes. Her already pale skin appeared to grow sallow, tight. “So much is an illusion,” she said, her gaze still cast down. “I try to make everyone like me. I want to look healthy and unconcerned.”

“You told me that you were assaulted repeatedly by the advancing Russian soldiers….”

“Yes, that is what happened,” she muttered. “There were uncountable numbers of women, and little girls, brutalized and killed. I am happy, grateful, that I was able to escape to the American sector.”

“Forgive me if I don’t really have much sympathy, Fraulein. You were referred to me by one of my officers, and I’m trying to help you. But I need the truth. You described how one of the Russians held you down, and another used a knife or bayonet to cut the skin off your back. And I told you, what you’ve got there are burn wounds — acid burns, or some other caustic substance. You have a birth mark of some kind, extensive, and the entire dorsal area demonstrates evidence of deep-partial-thickness second degree burns….” Lt. Stewart paused. He remembered the first moment he touched that thick and rubbery swirling pattern of red, white, and brown blotches — and saw it move and change into a new pattern before his eyes. If he could believe his own eyes.

She shifted in place and straightened, then curved her torso to one side, stretching her frame like a cat. She quieted. “It hurts,” she said, dropping her chin to her chest, her body suddenly sagging. There was a tense silence, and then she said in a hoarse voice, “What name would you like? My family name? My stage name? My marriage names? The identity I used when I was living in Pomerania? I am always Lotte. In the cabarets during the ’20s, I was Lotte Hoffmann.”

The lieutenant was losing patience. His emotions swung between anger and guilt; every time he tried to remember the Hippocratic Oath he also thought about the corpses he’d seen piled in those camps, in ditches, in railroad cars. Every time he attempted to remember that these civilians were just ordinary, suffering people, the hatred and rage returned and he wanted to dismiss them all as monsters. He inhaled deeply and held his breath, let the air out slowly. “What do you want, exactly?” he finally said.

Lotte’s eyes filled and glistened. She blinked rapidly, although it was hard to tell if she were close to tears. She had perfected a way of concealing her feelings, hardening her expression like a theatrical mask. “Can I put my dress back on?” she asked.

He nodded, and she slid off the gurney-like table. She padded over to the door, and yanked at her dress to dislodge it. Lt. Stewart tilted his head, his eyes widening, as he watched the dark stains and raw mottling and curd-like clumps of scar tissue snake and slither over the bumps of her backbone. The hair stood up on his spine; a chill swept over him — it almost looked like an American flag now, flowing under the straps of her chemise. Lotte’s arms shot up and the frock shimmied down over them, falling into place around her curvaceous form and blocking his view.

She pivoted, and shoved her cigarette into one of her side-seam pockets. She stared at the doctor, registering his reaction while she rapidly buttoned up the top of her dress. She tugged at her skirt so that it hung properly, and plucked at her puffed short sleeves. She leaned over and straightened the seams of her stockings. She pointed at a small wooden chair in one corner of the room. “May I sit?”

Lt. Stewart nodded once more. He tossed the medicine and bandages towards her as she folded herself down. She caught both of them, easily, but she looked surprised. “I don’t know what good they’ll do, but take it,” he said. He remained standing, feeling unsettled and battling his escalating frustration.

“There is nothing you can do?” she asked him, distress twisting her features.

“You haven’t told me a goddamn thing about yourself. Not one goddamn honest word. I have no idea who you really are.”

She rested primly, her legs pressed tightly together at an angle, her toes touching the tile floor. Her shoes — a short, blocky kind of ankle-boot — remained beside the entrance. Her skin seemed to glow, to radiate in the combination of daylight and artificial illumination coming from the large, circular, moveable overhead lamp attached to the ceiling.

The lieutenant exhaled sharply, trying to curb his annoyance. “Look, Fraulein Hoffmann … Schmidt … I have to see other patients today. This is an army hospital. Have you tried the Auguste Victoria Hospital at Berlin Schöneberg?”

“Yes, during the war. You allies have let a lot of Nazi doctors slip through your fingers. I won’t go back there.”

“We’ve been meticulous. There are almost a hundred thousand of your former leaders in detention, and another two million have been identified and forbidden to work.”

“I do not think so. Especially when it concerns doctors and scientists.”

Lt. Stewart felt the heat shoot up his neck, the veins on his temples throb. “And how exactly would you know?” he said, his voice loud.

Lotte started, and seemed to compact, to shrink in her chair. She continued to keep her eyes steadily locked on his, despite the body-language that indicated fear and capitulation. “I am entlastete, ‘exonerated,’” she said.

“Mmm, hmm. You have exactly three minutes to tell me the truth about your injury,” he said, “and then you have to leave.”

There was a brief knock on the door. The knob turned, and one of the army staff nurses swung into view as she leaned into the room. “We’ve got ‘em piling up out here,” she said. She paused in the doorway and darted a quick and narrow glance in Lotte’s direction.

“I know, I know, we’re almost finished.” Stewart sighed loudly. He almost added, call the cavalry, their code for the military police, but hesitated. “I need to talk to her for a few more minutes,” he said.

Lotte watched the nurse disappear. “What do you want to know?” she asked, returning her attention to the army doctor. She fumbled briefly towards her pocket. “Can I not smoke?”

“No. And I have asked you repeatedly, what happened.” He moved several feet, so that he towered over her. “All right, I’ll put it another way. What is your medical history? What has happened to you in the past, that could help me diagnose your condition?”

She pursed her full lips, frowned. She craned her neck so she could look up at him. “I like to watch a man’s face,” she said. “I like to know what a man is thinking.” As he did not back off, and instead folded his arms in a threatening manner, she continued, “I was born with … something … a mark, maybe? Call it what you will. My family is from Munich, but I have been on my own for years. After the first war, the world was so free and so much was possible. I came to Berlin and worked in several cabarets. I did … you know … hootchy-kootchy … but I never stripped nude completely. The cabaret clubs I worked combined girls and political satire; they protested the Social Democrats when they turned against us … after Rosa Luxemburg was murdered….”

“So you’re a Communist?”

“Nein. They also made fun of the brown shirts and Nazi clowns. I danced in the cabaret. At the end of my number, I turned around and pulled down my satin blouse and showed my mark to the crowd. Sometimes it was the Prussian eagle, sometimes a fleur-de-les, or an abstract design, or a person’s face — the crowd was drunk and saw what they wanted to see. In 1930 it was apparently a man with a silly mustache under his nose. After the show, some Nazi thugs grabbed me and beat me and cut me.”

“Those are burn scars….”

“Well, I tell you, after Adolf became chancellor, things got pretty bad and I wanted to hide. I didn’t want to be me any more. So….” She wiped her nose with the base of her thumb. “I talked a boyfriend into pouring acid over me. He tied me down. I fainted from the agony. But the mark would not go away. Then … one of those doctors … you know, one of those doctors that you Americans say you’ve caught … at one of those institutes of pathology in Berlin … he worked on me until I escaped. I managed to pretend I was an ethnic German in Pomerania until the Russians expelled us, and chased us back to the Fatherland. The Russian soldiers are dirty, filthy animals. They did terrible things…..”

There was no advance notice this time; the door flew open. A tall, middle-aged officer, his olive-drab uniform neatly pressed, stepped in. “Lieutenant, this is the outpatient section. We have dozens of our own personnel waiting. We treat the civilians only when we’ve taken care of our own, first. Do you comprehend this?”

Lt. Stewart casually rotated his head to view his superior, Captain Adams. “Yes, sir,” he said.

The captain sidled over to Stewart and winked down at Lotte, who pressed a little ways back in her seat. He whispered, “Besides, Marty, she’s the major’s frau. He’s really stuck on ‘er. Might even take her back to the States with him.”

Lotte fluidly stood, smoothing her skirt. “I’ll just get my shoes, then,” she said, and ambled by both men, brushing against Captain Adams’ jacket.

“Sir….” Lt. Stewart began. His irritation was intense, but he had to remain in control of himself. He studied Lotte as she bent, then rose to her full height. She seemed resigned but something else — satisfied? Triumphant? His stomach lurched as he peered at her back. He thought he could see distinct, sinuous movement under the pink and brown plaid material.

She caught the lieutenant’s eyes briefly, and grinned. “I was hoping you could help me, Herr Doctor,” she said as she posed on the threshold, one hip higher than the other. “I was hoping you could tell me what is wrong with me, and make the pain go away.” She adjusted her line of sight so that she was focused on the captain and said, “Tell the major I will come to him in a little while.” And she was gone.

Captain Adams hit the lieutenant good-naturedly on his upper arm. “Aw, there’s plenty more where she came from,” he said, laughing. “When you’re finished here, join me for dinner!”

Stewart swallowed and almost choked. He started coughing, as the nurse ushered in another burn patient. More where she came from? he thought. Geezus.

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