By Robert Arthur Neff
World War II in Europe ended officially on Monday, May 8, 1945 when Reichspräsident Karl Dönitz, successor to deceased Nazi Führer, Adolph Hitler, signed documentation surrendering all of Germany's armed forces. It happened on U. S. President Harry Truman's 61st birthday and only the twenty-seventh day of his presidency. He addressed the nation solemnly, dedicating the costly victory to the country's wartime leader, Franklin Roosevelt, and counseling a weary nation that "work, work, work" lay ahead for Americans before a just and lasting peace could be established.
The president's realistic assessment was set aside temporarily by a nation exhausted by wartime sacrifices and the loss of over 400,000 of its military personnel; a joyful national "street party" erupted from sea to shining sea as people celebrated V E Day and anticipated that V J Day could not be far away. Three months later, that companion victory was achieved when atomic bombs decimated two Japanese cities and the Asian nation's wartime leaders concluded that further resistance risked total annihilation of their home islands.
Conditions within Europe were chaotic. Captured Allied troops were returned to their respective commands and the woeful survivors of scores of horrific concentration camps were freed from captivity. Surrendering German military personnel surged westward to avoid capture by the USSR; nevertheless more than two million of them failed to escape that dire alternative. The victorious Allies began the task of staking out their respective control zones on the European Continent and this quickly produced awkward divisions of former nations and their leading cities. Even before the Allied victory could be savored fully, new animosities among those recent wartime allies surfaced and threatened the peace.
The story related in "After All" begins during that two-year period, when it re-focuses upon the lives of two young Germans whose wartime romance and tribulations were the subject of my historical novel entitled "Uber Alles". Dieter Meister was a barroom piano man, who had been displaced from a Frankfurt music academy because he was the orphaned child of a Jewish mother. In Berlin he met Sofie von Seigler, the daughter of an important Wehrmacht general and his Jewish secretary. Sofie had been born during General von Seigler's pre-WW I deployment to Poland.
Although Dieter and Sofie were apolitical musicians, circumstances beyond their control had embroiled the two in the catastrophic Nazi conquest of Western Europe, and eventually they became hopelessly separated. At the conclusion of the story related in Uber Alles, Dieter and Sofie had been reunited in Brazil. They viewed their new horizons hopefully - after all they had endured history’s most-costly war - but residual shadows from that conflict soon darkened the skies of their bright new world.
[A letter of Amends]
Saturday, May 12, 1945
Copacabana Palace Hotel
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
My dear Elsa,
This letter is long overdue, but until we learned of the Allied Victory in Europe on Tuesday, I could not safely send it. As it is, I am not using your name on the envelope, but only the Box Number at Praha Hlavni Nadrazi Station which you gave to me. I hope you will acknowledge your receipt. Just use the hotel name above and indicate that it is for “The Piano Man“.
Elsa, I believe that I have been born twice. First at Dr. Hoch’s Konservatorium in Frankfurt, on June 20, 1911, when an elderly Jewish physician used his forceps to ease me from the body of a young music student named Eva Rosenberg. She was destined to perish in The Great Influenza Pandemic before my eighth birthday. I was born the second time on a roadside outside the Theresienstadt Detention Camp near Prague, on March 6, 1943, when you and the big Gypsy fellow pulled my moribund body from a large garbage can filled with putrid fish entrails. You both risked your lives to free me, and then you nursed me back to some semblance of health and delivered me to the next link in my escape path.
That journey took me to Lisbon, where I became a supernumerary crewman on a freighter bound for Brazil. Once here, with an introduction and endorsement provided by my former (Portuguese) manager at The Fischerstube in Berlin, I became “The Piano Man” in the lounge bar and restaurant of Brazil’s most-famous luxury hotel. You can imagine the change in my life! For over three years I had wallowed in the filth and sickness of Theresienstadt - and had survived only by providing piano music for the guards and billeted military. I also cleaned their dining areas, latrines and kitchen, and augmented my meager meals with leftover scraps salvaged from their dirty plates. Then, in only a few weeks, I was miraculously transformed into a well-paid, well-fed entertainer in an overpriced luxury hotel, observing the eccentricities and foibles of the world’s “celebrities”. I had truly been born again, and you were the midwife!
I will always remember how you cleaned and dressed the sores on my body and massaged my limbs each day until I could move about on my own. You bathed me as if I were a child and encouraged me to eat and read and speak and think like a free person again. Most importantly, you sheltered a fugitive at the risk of your own freedom - perhaps even your life.
Elsa, of course I know that you were a professional gatherer of Intelligence working in enemy-held territory. I also realize that your work was generally performed as part of an “escort service” where your charms could loosen the tongues of occupying military and business men. It was depersonalizing and undoubtedly humiliating for you. In the last moments we shared, I reassured you that “...you are not a whore - you are a warrior”, and more than ever I know how true that was. With the war now ended, I want to reverse our roles and help you to be born again - and I have already put this in place - so you cannot say “no” to me.
A year ago, at a place called Bretton Woods in the USA State of New Hampshire, the finance people from many Allied countries set the base for post-war business and trade. They agreed on exchange rates which are now in effect. I have most of a Swiss Franc account - which was set up by a friend who you know, to help my escape - sitting untouched with Bank Julius Baer. I have instructed them to release the contents to you, using the name by which I know you, plus the date on which you freed me, expressed as dd/mm/yyyy. The account’s assets, at the Bretton Woods exchange rate, will provide you with about 19,000 US dollars. I am told that dollars are the desired post-war currency and that you should be able to acquire a cozy apartment almost anywhere in Europe with that amount.
You are a talented and charming woman, but we are both approaching our 35th birthdays now and it is time for us both to emerge from the chrysalis stage into our new-born selves. You made that possible for me and now I can partially return the favor - so do not deny me that.
With warmest affection and unbounded gratitude,