He never meant to kill her.
The afternoon had started out nice enough, for war-ravaged Germany right after the surrender. As Corporal Henry Sachs reclined on the parapet of a ruined castle and enjoyed a smoke in the sunshine, he reflected that life was going fine. A cooling breeze whipped around him. The view across the valley spread for miles. Hawks soared. Church steeples marked the towns. A half-dozen castles perched on the distant hills.
The war was over. He was alive. You couldn’t ask for more than that, and he didn’t. He was twenty-one years old and full of beans, if he did say so himself. At five feet nine (okay, in his boots), with dark hair, brown eyes, and a suave, devil-may-care edge, he reminded himself of Humphrey Bogart. He’d signed up in ’42, the day after he graduated from high school, and he prided himself on making the military work for him instead of the other way around.
Like today. Soon the Third Army would be pulling out and the Soviets would take over this part of Germany. Before the Americans said auf Wiedersehen, Henry had a hankering to do some sightseeing. He’d recruited his best buddy, Pete Galinsky—right now pacing around to take in the view—to join him. They’d borrowed, so to speak, a military jeep, and they’d gone on a drive. They’d visited medieval towns and toured old churches. In exchange for chocolate and cigarettes, the currency of the day, they’d bought lunch at a prosperous-looking farmhouse where they teased the kids and Henry noticed that there wasn’t a man in sight.
He checked his watch. The time was going on 16:00 hours, 4:00 p.m. “Let’s start heading back,” Henry said. Back meant Weimar, the city where they were based.
“Sounds good,” Pete said.
Henry tossed his cigarette butt over the parapet. They returned to the jeep, and Henry took the wheel. Pete navigated, examining the map and checking the compass balanced on his knee. Pete was twenty going on fifty, and his long, thin face matched his long, thin body. He was from Buffalo, New York, where he’d progressed from high school into working at his family’s clothing store. The army in its wisdom had decided he should be a mechanic and trained him to repair trucks.
Soon they were on the main road. They curved around a hillside, and the landscape opened onto a wide vista, meadows stretching into an endless distance. Henry pressed down hard on the gas pedal, and he was free. The wind hitting his face smelled rich and fertile. He inhaled, filling his lungs. The war in Europe was over. The good guys won. He felt elated. Triumphant. Invincible.
“It’s a straight shot from here,” Pete said. “We’ll have time to visit Tiefurt Palace along the way.”
Visiting hours at the palace (if there were any) didn’t apply to them, not with Henry speaking German like a native and carrying an ample supply of chocolate and cigarettes in his rucksack to smooth over any hard feelings. Henry had been born in Brooklyn, where his family owned a shoe store, but his father was from East Prussia and his mother was from the Sudetenland. They spoke German at home, and Henry had learned the niceties of German grammar in high school. He’d spent the war translating for an intelligence unit.
“‘The chateau and park of Tiefurt, once the summer residence of Duchess Anna Amalia . . .,’” Pete read aloud from the Baedeker guide, a gift from Henry’s father on the day he shipped out.
When she came to America, Henry’s mother had left a big family behind in the Sudetenland, in the town of Eger. She exchanged letters and photographs with them frequently. Henry had never met any of these relatives, but he knew them from their photos: gorgeous cousin Shoshanna, with her hair pulled back; Aunt Chana, with her round face and a body to match, wearing fur in winter and in summer, at least for photographs; Uncle Max, who stood proudly in front of the family’s dry goods shop; cousin Jakob, Henry’s age, wearing thick glasses and reading a book; youngest cousin Franz, with his bright blond hair and Tyrolean jacket. Franz gripped old Grandpa Abraham’s hand and seemed afraid of the camera. Abraham smiled down at the boy with a mixture of love and indulgence that almost made Henry jealous. Abraham was Henry’s grandpa, too.
After the war started, Henry’s mother didn’t receive any more letters or photographs from the family.
Excerpted from And After the Fire, copyright 2016 by Lauren Belfer. HarperCollins Publishers. All Rights Reserved.