He's My Brother
by Ute Carson
Offbeat/Quirky, Journal of Experimental Fiction, Vol. 73, March 2017

"That was only prologue.
When books are burned,
eventually people will be
burned as well ."

- Heinrich Heine 1820


The autumn air had deepened and thick mist was drifting through a Swiss valley near Lausanne. Biting winds whipped over the mountains. Madame Juliette, a slender woman, wearing tan slacks and a blue mohair sweater, her gray hair pulled back into a chignon, sat on a flower-patterned sofa in her oak-paneled study. A sturdy cardboard box stood next to her. It was crammed with loose photos, family pictures, landscape shots and vacation mementos. A fire crackled in the large stone fireplace.

Juliette's former teacher, Dr. Schreiber, was visiting from America. With bushy white hair and a mustache he bore a certain likeness to Mark Twain, but he had shrunk in stature since they last met years ago. He rocked calmly in his chair, his eyes sharply focused on Juliette. Under his steady gaze she felt like the shy student who had been dazzled by his lectures and intimidated by his kind but demanding demeanor. Dr. Schreiber had come to assemble a collection of stories and articles about his former school in Berlin and its pupils.

As they talked, Juliette's small hands rifled through a pile of photographs. With squirrel-like dexterity she picked up one picture, then another, discarding them until her face twitched with recognition. "Here," she whispered. Dr. Schreiber reached for the photo and studied it at arm's length. Then, uncharacteristically emotional, he said, "Oh, I remember Heio well. It seems like only yesterday." But it had happened a long time ago.

Dr. Schreiber began to reminisce. "Following the 1933 book burning on the Bebelplatz at Humboldt University my worries about the National Socialist regime mounted. I considered accepting your father's offer to fund a new school for me here in Lausanne, but I could not bring myself to dissolve my beloved school in Berlin." "What made you change your mind?" Juliette interjected. "It wasn't that I changed my mind. I simply waited too long and the Nazis closed me down."

Dr. Schreiber then recalled an incident involving Heio that occurred a few days before the Kristallnacht in 1939. "I was standing at the window of my study watching students cross the street on their way to the school when I saw an SS officer shove Jacob Bernstein into the gutter. Heio ran to the boy's side, lifted him up, exchanged a few words with the officer, and escorted Jacob through the door of the school. When I questioned Jacob about what had happened he told me that Heio had witnessed the incident as he jumped off the streetcar at our stop. He ran over to help Jacob up. As Heio brushed Jacob off and straightened his cap, the SS officer turned on him. ‘Judenfreund,'eh? he demanded menacingly. Heio replied, with his disarming smile, ‘I am Baron von Lüttwitz, officer, and this is my brother.'"

Dr. Schreiber pondered Heio's remark momentarily before continuing. "The boys did somewhat resemble each other. Both were trim and had chiseled profiles. However, Jacob had begun to affect a slouching and shuffling gait whenever he spotted black jackboots or men in dark uniforms. Fear had seized him after his epileptic brother was forcibly institutionalized by the Nazi "health authorities" and he had witnessed his father, a respected jeweler in town, being roughed up by a street gang shouting anti-Semitic slurs. Jacob admitted that he was astonished that, after hesitating for a moment, the SS officer had let the matter lie and walked away."

"It is curious, don't you think?" Juliette asked. "Yes and no," Dr. Schreiber explained. "The Nazis both loathed and admired aristocrats and still handled them with kid gloves in those days. It was in the wake of this incident that I contacted Heio's mother, a Christian Scientist and pacifist, to seek her permission to ask Heio if he would like to join me in establishing a new school in Switzerland." Dr. Schreiber mused, "Heio was a born leader with a sunny disposition and compassion for others. He was always eager to help but never ingratiating. I knew he would set a perfect example for my school."

Juliette knew this part of the story well and her cheeks flushed as she broke in. "And Heio accepted your invitation and came here for a few carefree years. We studied together, rode our horses through meadows at dawn and dusk and, wonder of wonders, we fell in love. Heio was in my older brother's class and was often invited to our home. My parents sometimes interrupted our adolescent conversations with their worries about what was happening in Germany. But we were young and optimistic about life. They also often opened their mountain chalet to us and a group of friends from school on weekends. It became Heio's favorite place in Switzerland. He was always full of vitality and good humor at the chalet."

"Were there ever signs of a change in his mood?" Dr. Schreiber asked. "Not at first," Juliette replied. "He did make regular visits home to Germany. He had a married sister and an older brother there. Upon his return from those visits he sometimes seemed distracted and gloomy. Then, when his brother-in-law was killed in France in 1940, he began to question whether it was right for him to remain in relative safety in Switzerland. We were startled. We knew that Heio's older brother Hubertus had been drafted when he graduated from boarding school at Castle Salem. Serious and reclusive by nature, he was not cut out to be a soldier so was initially assigned to a desk job.

Heio described his brother to me as quite different from himself. But he asserted that they had been very close from childhood on. Heio was the gregarious one and full of mischief. I remember sitting around a campfire near the chalet one evening as he told us stories about how he often coaxed his brother into various fooleries. Once, while guests were arriving for an elegant dinner at their grandfather's estate, Heio took Hubertus with him to cut long strings of ivy from the walls of the manor house which they then proceeded to wrap around the guest room toilet seats. Their grandfather dearly loved the two boys but that night he gave them a whipping with his riding crop." Juliette laughed as she recounted this story. "Heio often had some such prank up his sleeve".

"While Heio wrestled with his qualms of conscience," Dr. Schreiber interjected, "I was getting ready to leave for America. Your father had it all arranged. I now loved my school in Lausanne and stayed as long as I dared. But Switzerland no longer seemed safe in 1942. Late that summer Heio was sitting in front of me, stooped forward, his head buried in his hands, telling me about his decision to return to Germany for good. Hubertus had been sent to the front. ‘He is my brother,' he sighed, ‘I cannot abandon him.' Heio did not even respond when I implored him to emigrate with me to America."

Juliette was now in tears. "We all tried. My parents even attempted to bribe him by holding out the possibility that he could join our firm. We reminded him that he would be drafted as soon as he crossed the border but he only shook his head. ‘I must go, Juliette, I simply must.' A single weekend remained before his departure. I can't describe it, it's too personal!"

"Please, Juliette, do try. It is very important. My editor, that youngster Jacob who is now a successful publisher, is waiting for Heio's story which will appear in print along with a few other recollections soon after I return."

Juliette let the moment pass, then took a long breath in and out and began to speak as though in a kind of reverie. "In late summer our forest teems with delicious wild blueberries, and bluebells sway in the balmy breeze in the meadows. The days are pleasant and the nights refreshingly cool, often crisp enough for a fire in the cast-iron stove. We had hiked up to our hideout, my parents' chalet. Heio was splitting wood for the evening fire when I snapped this last picture of him, shirtless, his blond hair tousled, axe swinging high above an upturned block of wood. In retrospect an awful omen, but at the time I could only admire the well-sculpted body of my first love. After a simple supper with milk from the fat meadow cows, bowls filled to the brim with blueberries we had picked that afternoon, and crusty brown bread with chunks of cheese, he brought a bottle of wine to the steps of the chalet. As we sipped the wine, bells from the village below began to ring. Like wedding bells, I remember thinking. We listened and held each other tight until the sounds no longer echoed through the mountains, and night enveloped us."

The rest of the story is a sad memory. Heio left Juliette and Switzerland and, as was foreseen, was drafted soon after he reached his homeland. Like his brother before him he was deployed to the Russian front. By sheer coincidence they met one last time. Their units had been stationed in proximity to each other near Kiev for a short reprieve from the fighting. In the mess hall Hubertus spotted Heio from behind by the white lock of neck hair that had marked him from childhood. Flinging their arms around each other, Hubertus gasped, "What are you doing here, Heio? I believed you safe in Switzerland." To which Heio replied, simply, "I could not leave you here alone."

As their separate companies moved deep into Russia during the extremely cold winter of 1944, their supply lines severed behind them, both brothers were killed. Hubertus was 21, Heio, 19. Heio's comrades discovered a photo of Juliette and a letter to his mother (my grandmother) in his shirt pocket. The letter contained a single message, "If it had not been for my idyllic childhood and carefree youth I could not survive this hellhole."

Evening had dimmed the study. Silence lingered until Juliette stood and walked over to the fire. Dr. Schreiber also rose and stepped to her side, gently placing a hand on her shoulder. "I thank you, my dear, for this painful, beautiful look back. May I borrow this photograph? I promise to return it to you with a copy of the book." And with that the old teacher took his leave.

- ~ -