Harz Mountains, Germany, 1943
They arrived on a cold November afternoon in 1943, when the trees were already heavy with snow. There were five children escorted by a young nurse from the home. Huddled in blankets, they sat on wooden benches fitted inside the rear section of the truck. The nurse was holding one of the children on her lap – a pale, shivering little boy, not yet three years old, with a persistent, rasping cough. She wished she could say something to bring him comfort, but she knew he understood nothing but his native Danish. During her time at the home she had seen many children come and go, but somehow this one had touched her, affected her in a special way – perhaps it was his physical fragility combined with something in his face, a spark, a kind of inner strength . . .
The jarring sound of the truck changing gears startled the boy. He looked up at the road ahead and saw, caught in the headlights, a figure trudging up the side of the road ahead with the slow, steady gait of an old man. The figure carried a big walking staff of knobbly wood and wore a long cloak of heavy green cloth and a broad-brimmed, pointed hat of the same colour. As the lorry passed him the man turned, revealing a face with a full white beard and a patch over one eye. For an instant looked smilingly at the boy and raised his stick in greeting. The boy watched the cloaked figure receding into the distance, not wanting to lose sight of him. Then the lorry turned a corner, and the old man was gone . . .
The truck slowed, turned off the road to the left and halted, the headlights shining on a massive double door with diagonal boarding and the name “Lenzfeld” written in black Gothic letters on a white enamelled plaque. Another plaque said: “Property of the Lebensborn Foundation. Entry by unauthorised persons strictly forbidden.” Someone opened the doors from within, and the truck moved forward with a jerk that woke the boy . . .
Berlin, February 1966
He tried to merge with the other passengers on the bus, while putting them down as misguided failures. An hour earlier they had set out from the prison camp before dawn, and up to now none of them had said a word; the habit of watchful silence was so deeply engrained so that, even on their farewell journey, they were worried that the wrong word might send them back to prison . . . Clever idea of his bosses, he thought, to have him masquerade as a dissident and arrange for him to be bought free along with the others. They imagined they were escaping to a freer world, but he knew better. The West was a fool’s paradise. He was proud to be part of the fifth column that was going to hasten its collapse. And, what was more, somewhere over there was his mother – a mother whom he had never known about until they had told him. Now he was going to find her . . .
Hamburg, spring 1966
In the quiet of the reading room at the Hamburg Public Library Claudia sat at a table with a pile of books, thinking about Henrik. When she had first begun to fall in love with him she had tried to keep a cool head by analysing him as objectively as if he were one of her clients. On the table in front of her lay a notebook open at a page on which she had written in a neat, upright hand:
“Henrik Erdmann. 25 years old. Refugee from the GDR. Childhood marked by traumas – rejection by Danish mother, period in Lebensborn home, adoption, stigma of birth. Personality type: something of the “eternal boy” – charming, with a strange sort of charisma, but self-centred and a bit ruthless. Strongly driven to prove himself to himself and the world. Prominence of Hero archetype. Determined, intelligent, idealistic, but masking feeling side. Out of touch with Anima. Impaired capacity for bonding due to uprooted childhood. Evidence that he is holding something back when talking about the GDR. Speech patterns and body language change subtly when the subject comes up. Something he is ashamed of in his past? Altogether a bit of a dark horse.” . . .
The river Elbe, East-West border, summer 1966
Now he could just make out the wide belt of the river and hear the gurgling, rushing sound of the great mass of water moving west, down to Hamburg and the North Sea. On the far bank the lights of a village were visible, its houses reflected in the water. His spirits soared.
Then he heard a sound that made him freeze: the barking of a dog. It was coming from the road and getting closer. He ran on down the bank, tearing aside branches in his frenzy to escape. He could hear the creature snuffling in the undergrowth close behind him. In the distance, other dogs began barking as they found his scent. Sprinting ahead, he tripped on a root, feeling a searing pain in his ankle as he hit the ground. In seconds the dog would be on him. He could hear it barking and growling only metres away. As he dragged himself to his feet, he saw it leaping and straining furiously at something holding it back. It must have reached the limit of its tether.
Half hopping, half limping, he stumbled down the shore towards the water. A siren started to wail above the shouts of the guards, and the roving beam of a searchlight swept over him. As he hit the water he heard the stammer of a machine gun and bullets spattering the surface inches away.
With all his remaining strength he struck out towards the opposite bank. The river was moving much faster than he had imagined and the lights on the far shore were sliding away to the left with alarming speed. Beneath him, the irresistible power of the current was carrying him away. The firing stopped, the lights across the river vanished. He had no idea how far he still had to go, and his strength was failing. He was struggling for breath, trying not to gulp down water, when he heard the rumble of an engine, and a moment later was dazzled by a searchlight, mounted on the front deck of the approaching patrol boat.