Apfelkuchen für den Fuhrer
Nicole Lenoir-Jourdan (Deakin University, Australia)
It was spring 1941. The smell of death was perfumed by tulips. Their red and yellow heads swayed from window boxes overlooking cobblestone streets. Yet there was no joy in their colour nor their perfume that wafted through the open window. I stood iced to the ground staring at that window with its peeling paint. My hands were dusted with flour and my apron was still tied. Through that window I could see three rooves angled in triangles like pinking shears ready to devour a city whose beauty was once captured by paintbrushes. The charm was being destroyed by the former Austrian painter who sat in front of me.
Wir wissen uber dich Bescheid.
They’ve heard about me. Oh mein Gott no. Inside I shook. I could feel the vomit about to rise. They knew. Take hold I thought. Would I really have been brought here? Here. The well-known moustache twitched. Two men tall, thin stood at attention on either side of the desk where he sat. Adolf Hitler. I was in shock. I was standing opposite Hitler in what was once a headmaster’s office. Now two flags were pinned to the walls. Flags of the devil. Blood red, framing the throne of Satan. I saw from the corner of my eye his momentary glance down my body before he looked at the paper on his desk.
I said nothing. My head was held high with my gaze straight ahead.
Then he laughed. My attention flickered to him. His eyes. Dusty blue. Pupils dilated. What did he want with me? Why had I been brought here?
Du kannst dein Geheimnis nicht bewahren.
His voice was charm itself. What did he mean by that? I cannot keep my secrets. Did he know about all the children or just one? I curled my toes inside my shoes to try to stop the tension rising. My stomach was a knot. Hitler. Adolf Hitler. Evil personified. Sat in front of me. What was he doing in Amsterdam? What was the paper he looked at? An order to have me shot?
He must know. About the children. Why else could I be here? Remain calm. Make no expression. Do not flinch and never give the operation away. My mouth was dry. My throat too. This was the end. Torture? Firing squad? Concentration camp?
Sie sind der beste Apfelkuchenhersteller in Holland.
What? How did he know about my apple cake? Was this not about the children? I kept my stare straight ahead. Out of the corner of my eye I could see one of the guards. Young boy. Nineteen maybe? Then I recognised him. Pieter. He’d worked in the Backerai in the afternoons with me before I’d left to become a cook at the local school.
Ich mochte jeden Morgen um 9 Uhr einen Apfelkuchen hier haben. Es muss Rosinen und Nusse haben. Du bist entalssen.
It was like a champagne cork had popped. The build up to a moment of death but all he wanted was an apple cake. Adolf Hitler wanted my apple cake.
“Heil Hitler,” I said my hand in the air. The boy Pieter moved forward and shoved a piece of paper in my hand which I put in my pocket. Then Pieter ushered me out the door. Once through the doorway, I wanted to run. Run away from this school building with its creaking floorboards and dirty walls. Run from the stuffy and putrid air that filled the hallway and the room where children had been brought for misdemeanours. Now a place of murder and torture plots. Yet I did not flee. I’d been trained to keep my emotions in check, outwardly at least. I walked slowly and deliberately on the cobblestones like an upstanding citizen of the state.
The canal was ahead; its waters brown, sloshing against the stone sides like badly poured coffee. I stumbled on an uneven stone and lurched forward but didn’t fall. I steadied myself and turned the corner, finally out of sight of the Nazi headquarters. Now I could breathe out. My hand grasped the piece of paper in my pocket and pulled it free. I unfolded it and held it tight. It was a recipe.
250 g Flour
200 g Butter
150 g Sugar
1 pkt baking powder
1500 g apples
Handful of raisins
Handful pieces of hazelnuts
Peel apples. Cut the cores and cut apples to slices EXACTLY same. Put some lemon juice over the apples so they do not turn brown. For batter you add the flour, sugar, vanilla, baking powder and eggs into a mixing bowl. The butter must be nice and soft. You must warm it before you mix it in. Enter the butter to the other ingredients in the mixing bowl and knead it for five minutes to form a nice batter. The dough is to be processed immediately thereafter. Place baking tray with baking paper and spread out evenly the batter. Now you put grated apples row by row in exact intervals in the batter. Use a ruler. Occupy the oven and preheat it to 200 degrees C. Bake the cake for precisely 30 minutes. In the meantime prepare the hazelnuts and raisins. After 15 minutes you take the cake from the over and give the nuts and raisins on it. Thereafter bake it for 15 minutes. Then put more sliced apples on top perfectly.
I’d seen worse written recipes. I would use my own and modify it. Vanilla? There was no vanilla in the ingredient list. A replacement? Arsenic perhaps? I folded the recipe returning it to my pocket and walked quickly back to the school. Johan was waiting just inside the door. His hands were in his trench coat which hung loose on his tall and athletic body. His cheeks were slightly pink. He’d been out.
“You’re safe. Godzijdank,” he said. He wore no expression. One couldn’t these days but his eyes sparkled briefly. “Come. Sit.”
I walked over with him to the oak table embedded with blue and white tiles from a happier era.
Johan sat down and straightened his back. His brows lifted for a moment in that are you alright sort of way.
“Good news,” I said. “The Fuhrer has asked me to make him a cake. It must be ready each morning and delivered before nine. Such an honour to serve the Fuhrer.” My eyes darted around the room. One always had to be so careful about what was said even in private.
“The Fuhrer is here. In Amsterdam?’ asked Johan also looking around. His face bore the bland expression of the resistance. I knew he was surprised but couldn’t show it. He got up and closed the door.
“We have a delivery,” he said. “This afternoon.” Johan sat back opposite me.
“Is it a good idea?” I whispered.
“Hush. We must. We cannot alter this.”
The door burst open. Pieter appeared with another guard. Johan jumped to his feet. As did I.
“Sieg Heil,” we said in unison. Peter and the guard did not return our greeting. Their hands were full each holding one end of a sack which they plopped on the table.
Hands free, they responded. “Sieg heil.” Then they stomped out shoulders back laughing.
“I must prepare the cake for the Fuhrer. I will take the delivery,” I said.
“You are a brave woman Henrietta,” whispered Johan and came over and held my hand for a moment. It was the first time he had touched me. War made people do strange things.
At half two that afternoon, the clock sang out its chimes. All the ingredients were sitting out divided into wooden bowls sitting on the kitchen bench. I took off my apron and hung it over the chair.
I went outside. The elm stood in the corner of our yard. Usually there’d be children hiding or trying to climb this mighty tree but our school was closed for two more days because of the holiday. However the day nursery next door was not. I could hear singing and cooing over the cries of children. I stood by the elm.
Then there was a quick shrill whistle. A child was held up over the fence. A little boy, blonde. He didn’t look Jewish. A lucky one. I gave him a big smile and grabbed him from the large white hands that held him. I let out a whistle and he was in my arms and we were back inside in seconds. I put him in the corner and gave him an apple and smiled. An apple from the Fuhrer. The sack that held the ingredients was on the chair. It was the perfect size. Our sack was getting dishevelled after all its cargo. I picked up the sack and took it over to him.
“What is your name?”
“Braam,” he whispered.
“Braam, will you get into this sack please? Soon you will be safe. Safe and happy.”
“Braam,” said nothing. Usually they didn’t. They’d been told.
I put the sack on the floor for him to get in and tied it up loosely so he could breathe. Hendrik, the delivery driver, would be here to pick him up shortly and I could get back to my cake. I put on my apron.
Heavy footsteps became louder and then Pieter appeared.
“Mevrouw Van Heck. It was me who told the Fuhrer of your cooking skills. Do nothing that you regret. Otherwise it will be the death of the both of us.”
I looked at him and nodded aware of the weight in his words.
“I’m preparing the cake now. It will be my best. You will be happy Pieter.”
Did he know about the resistance? Did he think I might poison the Fuhrer on his watch?
It was strange looking at this young man who used to bound into the cake shop in his short pants and take on our deliveries with a smile. I remember how he’d once cleaned up a pie that had fallen onto the floor and rushed outside with it to feed a stray dog. Now clad in grey with the required armband, I didn’t know him.
“You know he likes the apples to be perfectly in line. They must be perfect.” Pieter’s brows knitted together. Then he looked away. Did he want to say anything else? I wanted him out of my kitchen. No matter our history, I was sure he’d turn me in if he knew about my part in the resistance.
Are you finished with the sack? He said pointing to the corner.
Pieter stomped towards it. His army boots putting dirt on my clean floor. I had to think quickly.
“No,” I said trying to remain calm. Sweat squeezed out of my pores around my forehead. “Your ingredients are excellent yet I have a friend who grows apples so sweet you would think you were eating sugar. Johan is going for a delivery for me tonight. The sack is the perfect size. We will need it.” I paused. “For mein Fuhrer. He must have the best cake.”
I picked up the sifter. “I best get this mixture made. It’s best to pre prepare. I need all my energies to ensure it is one of my better cakes. It is a new recipe. I must concentrate.” I spewed out words. Anything to get his attention away from the sack.
“Your best cake,” said Pieter in a loud voice and left.
I started singing softly, “Het mooiste van.” Singing helped me to relieve the tension. I thought it good for the boy Braam, as well.
Five minutes later Johan walked in. “Mevrouw Van Heck,” he said. He looked at me, then the oven, and to the cupboard, – our hiding spaces and then the sack which had not moved. Good boy I thought. Johan’s face was crimson. Then he pulled out a small bottle from his pocket and put it on the table. It was marked with a skull and crossbones.
“I need apples,” I said to him. The sack is in the corner please do hurry I would like them shortly. I took the bottle and put it in my apron. It was a heavy weight.
“Ja,” he said and took the sack with little Braam out the door. I sent a prayer in my head to heaven and asked that the boy be safe and then I went back sifting the flour.
At eight the next morning I took the cake from the oven. I’d been up before dawn as the cake needed to be cooked early to make it fresh and warm. The cooked apple pieces were lined up neatly. They were virtually identical. I picked up one and placed it on the cake and then the next carefully trying to align them when I heard the front door being slammed open and marching steps. Two Nazis stormed in.
“We are here for the cake,” they said. It was almost comical but I daren’t laugh.
“I have not finished. You can take it in a few minutes,” I said.
“No. You will come. Now.”
I looked right into the eyes of the young guard. I was taking a risk. Yet my whole life since the occupation had been a risk. I was skirting the line – a professional tightrope walker. Would I make it to the other side? Or would I fall?
“The Fuhrer has asked for my best cake. Will I tell him you would not allow me to finish it?”
“Will I kill you now?” he said.
I stopped putting the apple on the cake.
He came close. I could smell his breath. Tobacco. I picked up a piece of apple.
The other guard spoke. “Let the woman do her work.”
Where was Pieter I thought as I neatly placed the last piece of apple on the cake?
Another guard stormed in. “She must come. Now.”
“We can carry the cake,” said the first guard.
“No. She is wanted.”
I was shoved out the door, holding the cake on a plate. I heard the third guard behind me muttering but could only pick up the word ‘kinder.’
I realised Johan had not yet arrived at school today. He was always there at eight. I’d been too engrossed in my cake at the time to notice but as I was marched out the door and up the street to the school taken over by the Nazis I wondered if something had happened. Never tell. Never ever tell. I knew Johan wouldn’t say anything but what if they found him and the boy Braam. What if he’d been tortured? People can break. Johan was a sensitive man. My throat felt like barbed wire. What if they tortured me? Would I break? Would I tell them who else was in on this? They couldn’t be trusted. They would kill you once they had the information. I walked more slowly and pulled my shoulders back. I would never tell.
“Raus. Macht schnell.” I felt a hard metal prod in my back. The cake was taken from me. I was pushed along.
A year ago the streets would have been brimming with people. There was not one person on our side of the street. Four soldiers cycled past in their uniforms heading to the school where I met the moustached man. My breathing quickened. What was going on? This was a clandestine world. Communication had double meanings. Everyone was so careful with speech. The only clues we had as to real communication were actions. The current ones told me I was in some sort of trouble and knowing what I did it could prove to be fatal.
I was marched up to his office with a guard in front of me carrying the cake. The doors opened. Hitler was sitting there. In the same position as yesterday. Two guards at his side. Pieter was not one of them.
The cake was put on the table.
Du schneidst ein Stück für die niederländishe Frau.
The guard cut me a piece of cake.
“Essen!“ He said.
Strange. Then the words of Pieter came back. ‘Do nothing that you regret. Otherwise it will be the death of the both of us.’
I looked at the piece cut. Good size. Without hesitation, I took a bite and chewed. Everyone watched me. I swallowed and took another bite. It was moist. The apples were sweet and crunchy on the top and gooey inside. Mein Fuhrer would enjoy it.
I finished the piece.
“Danke schön,” I said and then was silent.
Nicole Lenoir-Jourdan lives in Sydney, Australia. Somehow she obtained a BA (Communications), MA (Creative Writing) and is now a doctoral student in Creative Writing at Deakin University studying twenty-first century fantasy witches. She has been a columnist and journalist in Australian newspapers and magazines. An award-winning short story writer, she is currently working on an urban fantasy novel.
In 2018 she was elected to the editorial committee for the University of Technology Sydney’s prize-winning anthology ‘Infinite Threads’.