Samara looked at the address again as the taxi sped off. Her late sister’s scrawl had always been difficult to read and the name and address surrounded by love hearts at the back of her travel journal was no exception. Samara looked up at the monstrous dwelling in front of her. Had her sister really had an affair with its resident, which she had described in great detail in her travel journal?
The twenty-five-year-old waited after she rang the bell before the door was opened. Samara looked up at the young man who stood before her.
Samara stared blankly at him. So he had been Emma-Jane’s lover. ‘Sind Sie Johannes Hoffmann?’ she stammered.
‘Genau. You are English?’
‘No,’ she replied. ‘I’m Australian. I have come here because I need to speak to you in regards to my sister Emma-Jane Sullivan. I believe you knew her?’
‘Yes, I knew her. Won’t you come in?’
She followed him into the lounge room where he invited her to sit down. Samara explained that she was Emma-Jane’s elder sister and that she had found his address in her travel journal. ‘I decided to come here and meet you in the hope you could enlighten me as to how her life was during the months before she died. She also mentioned this strange castle and how she followed someone to it and discovered something bizarre there.’
Johannes nodded. ‘Well, I hope to be able to help you with some of that. I am only sorry I could not make it to her funeral, which I understand was in her hometown of Melbourne. You see we have just experienced a death in my family. My beloved grandmother died only two days after Emma-Jane. How was Emma’s funeral?’
Samara stared at the floor. ‘Um, well, to tell you the truth – I didn’t go.’
‘Ah, I see.’
Samara looked up at him and wondered if he truly did. Had Emma-Jane told him that they hadn’t spoken for several years?
‘How long will you be in Germany for?’
‘I’m not quite sure. There are a few things I need to find out while I am here.’
‘Where are you staying?’
‘I’m booked in at - `
Johannes held up his hand. ‘Nonsense! You are quite welcome to stay here for as long as you like. Come, I shall show you to your room.’
* * *
The next day found Samara in the lounge room once again looking at a black and white photo of a young woman in a lace dress.
‘That’s my great-grandmother, Duchess Marie who was from Russia. She came to Germany to be the wife of Baron Johann von…’ But Samara wasn’t listening. Instead, her blue eyes widened as she took in what he’d just said. ‘Samara? Are you listening to me?’ Samara awoke from her thoughts and looked at him.
‘Um, yeah, I’m listening.’
‘Did your sister not write any of this in her journal?’ he asked.
Samara looked down and played with a loose strand of dark hair. ‘No, she didn’t.’
She gasped as Johannes reached over to the writing desk and yanked open a drawer. He pulled out a photo and threw it at her. It landed neatly in her lap. Samara gazed down at the monochromatic photo of a man in a crisp, grey, dress uniform. Beside him sat another young, forlorn woman in a white dress. Was there a look of victory behind the impassive gaze?
‘Your grandmother was married to a Nazi officer? Why did she choose to marry such a man?’
‘Don’t you dare talk to me about choice!’ he yelled. ‘She didn’t choose to marry him – she was forced to like so many other women back then! He turned away and continued on quietly. ‘People today talk about choice. Yet, what choice did my grandmother – who was named Hannelore – have? She would have suffered the same fate as her parents if she had left him.’ He continued to pace around for several minutes before he abruptly excused himself and stormed off upstairs.
Samara remained in the lounge room for quite some time before she decided to head upstairs herself.
* * *
‘So did your grandfather die during the war?’ Samara asked as they drove along the autobahn. Samara chose her words carefully for they hadn’t spoken since yesterday.
Johannes cleared his throat. ‘He was declared missing in action during the battle of Stalingrad. His body was never recovered.’
Samara nodded. ‘So, how come no-one takes care of the castle anymore?’
‘Well, since no sons were born to my great-grandparents, it went to a close male relative who turned it over to the Nazis during the war,’ he spat out angrily. ‘Well, here we are.’
They pulled up in front of the formidable castle. The medieval structure made of stone had four high turrets and slits for windows. The former royal abode was high up on a craggy hillside against a backdrop of threatening grey clouds and sky.
Samara looked at Johannes whose gaze remained steadfast. ‘Are you going to come up?’
He shook his head and turned to her. ‘I never have and I never will. But you are most welcome to. I’ll wait outside.’
Samara got out of the car and walked towards the main tower. She opened the door and went inside. The draught blew through her as she walked up the spiral staircase until she came to a dim hallway. As she walked along, she thought she could hear the sound of Jazz music, which got louder and louder as she crept along the corridor. She stopped and pressed her ear to a door and listened. The haunting melody made her body go numb, and for a while she felt as though she could not move and yet, her curiosity to discover what her sister had seen urged her on. She pushed the door open and stepped inside.
‘Hannelore, bist du da?’ a voice called.
Samara froze. She stared sharply at an armchair faced away from her, from which she could see the top of a head. She moved slowly towards it as the voice called out again in German, ‘Hannelore, is that you?’
Samara gasped as she stood behind the chair for Hannelore was the name of Johannes’ late grandmother! On impulse, she decided to go along with the façade. ‘Ja,’ she lied.
Samara moved slowly around the chair and saw an old man in a worn out dressing gown. He held out his gnarled hands to her, which after a moment, she decided to take. The man caressed them lovingly. ‘They are as smooth as the day I married you and they tremble still!’ Samara gazed into the man’s unseeing eyes. She wondered if perhaps he had been blinded during the war. ‘Why won’t you come to see me?’
Samara let go of his hands and moved away. She stood up and wandered over to the window. Everything started to fall into place as she stared down and watched Johannes as he paced around outside. The man who sat in the chair had to be the same man she had seen in the photo Johannes had thrown at her.
‘Hannelore? Are you still there?’
There was a sudden silence in the room for several minutes as the record finished. Samara watched as he got up and fumbled around with the gramophone on the table nearby. He selected an Ella Fitzgerald record. Samara sighed.
‘Ach! You are still there mein Liebling. Oh, do you still hate me after all these years? And yet, you still come to see me. It is only because of you that I have been able to survive all this time. Even though you despised being married to me, you still chose to visit me and bring me food. If only you would bring me my grandson at least once. I need to speak to him at least once before it’s too late…’ Samara walked over to him as he reached into his pocket and pulled out an iron cross. ‘It came down from the sky whilst I was up to my neck in snow! Can you imagine it? Iron crosses were cast down onto the snow for us instead of food!’ he exclaimed. ‘Then, before we knew it – the Russians came and that was the end of it!’
Samara stayed until he fell asleep before she got up and crept out of the room with the iron cross tucked safely away in her coat pocket.
* * *
The next morning, Samara dressed before she started to pack her suitcase. She hoped to be able to make it out before he woke. She would leave a note for Johannes along with his grandfather’s iron cross. She would tell him that –
‘Are you leaving already?’
Samara looked up sharply as Johannes appeared at the door. He rubbed his forehead and yawned. Samara averted her gaze and continued to pack.
‘You weren’t going to leave without telling me were you?’ he asked.
‘It’s time I left,’ Samara said. She zipped up her bag and heaved it onto the floor.
‘Well, at least let me take you to the airport,’ he offered.
Samara looked back up at him and nodded her assent.
* * *
They shook hands as they stood together in front of the customs area. Samara pulled the medal from her pocket and placed it in is hand. ‘You really should go to the castle, Johannes,’ she whispered. She folded his fingers over the little cross. ‘There is someone there who wants to see you. You should go before he dies.’
Johannes gasped and touched the medal gently. ‘Is that where you found it?’ he asked.
Samara nodded. ‘Only I didn’t find it, it was given to me. Your grandfather – yes, that’s right – gave it to me! He didn’t die in Stalingrad! He must have escaped the Russians or something and has been hiding in his wife’s former family home ever since!’
Johannes looked back down at her with raised eyebrows. ‘You are joking right? My grandfather has been alive all this time and I never knew? Why didn’t my grandmother tell me – or anyone else for that matter?’
‘Well, can you blame her? I mean, after everything that happened back then and who knows what he did during the war… I guess she was scared of him being shunned by the general population. I mean, I have read about many soldiers who came back to a nation which didn’t want to know them.’
‘I am surprised she would have bothered with him. I mean, she was an elegant lady from a long aristocratic line who was forced to become the wife of bourgeois swine,’ Johannes said through gritted teeth.
‘Who knows the reason why? I guess she died with that secret. Anyway, will you promise me that you will go Johannes? He needs to know that your grandmother died because he basically thought I was her, which was easy for he’s blind Johannes. He must have lost his sight during the war!’
Johannes stared down at the medal for a moment before he looked back at her. ‘Ja. I will go and see him. I guess I have a lot of questions myself. But you must promise to visit your sister’s grave, alright?’
Samara nodded and tightened her grip of the strap of her bag, slung over her shoulder. ‘Mach’s gut,’ she said.
‘Make sure you take care of yourself as well. We shall keep in touch.’
Samara nodded and wondered if they truly would.
‘Auf Wiedersehen, Samara!’
Samara turned and pushed through the crowd. At the entrance, she turned to wave back at him. To her dismay however, due to the massive crush of people, he was nowhere to be seen. With that, she turned back again and continued on. She didn’t want to miss her flight.