IN OUR MIDST
Nina’s favorite moment was the hush, just before she pushed through the swinging door from the kitchen into the dining room of the restaurant, holding out her best Dresden platter, filled to its gold-laced edges with thin slices of fruit-pocked Christollen, chocolate Lebkuchen, and hand-pressed Springerle in a dozen designs, fragrant with aniseed. Following close behind would be her husband Otto, bearing the large serving bowl brimming with Pfeffernüsse, crisp and brown—each spicy nugget no larger than a hazelnut—ready to dip them up with a silver ladle and pour them into their guests’ cupped and eager hands. Next would come the boys, Kurt first, with two silver pitchers—one of hot strong coffee, the other of tea—and then Gerhard, carrying the porcelain chocolate pot, still the purest white and so abloom with flowers in pink, yellow, and blue that it seemed ever a promise of spring. Nina’s mother had passed it on to her in 1925, a farewell gift when she, Otto, and the boys—Kurt a wide-eyed three and Gerhard just learning to walk—had left Koblenz for the Port of Hamburg, bound for America.
Today marked the tenth anniversary of the Aust Family Restaurant’s St. Nikolas Day celebration, its hallmark the Austs’ offering of ample holiday sweets for everyone, free of charge. Their little festival had begun in another troubled time—the lean winter of 1931—but this year, with so much anxious talk of Roosevelt’s mounting arsenal, of Japanese emissaries and the Panama Canal, Nina had wanted to do more to welcome the people of Newman, their adopted home, as cherished friends. Working through the night and into the early hours of this morning, she had prepared St. Nikolas cookies, eight dozen of them—dark and buttery, formed one by one with the intricate wooden mold carved by her grandfather. The gingery saints waited now, standing in neat rows, in an immense shallow basket beside the restaurant door, ready for each guest to carry home.
Pressing the door open with her back, Nina twirled into the dining room, her platter held at a slight tilt for all to see. The hush exploded into a cheer. At the piano, seventeen-year-old Hugh Sloan, Gerhard’s best friend, sounded the first notes of “Masters in This Hall,” and his twin sister, Bess, sitting on the bench beside him, called out for all to sing. Not everyone knew the words—not until the chorus, when suddenly the crowd, even the children, rang out in a fellowship of goodwill, singing,
Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell sing we loud!
God today hath poor folk raised and cast a-down the proud.
Hugh and Bess sang the verses, and with each rise of the refrain, the singing grew more joyous. All the while, Nina offered the platter, speaking close to each person’s ear, saying, “Try this” and, “Oh, please…as many as you like” while her husband and sons poured out hot drinks all around.
Beyond the wide windows looking onto Elm Street glittered a bright, wet snowfall, and against the ashy light of midday, great fat flakes lent a cozy charm to the frame houses and brick storefronts, all neat but plain, in this southern Indiana town. To Nina’s eyes, Newman would never be as beautiful as even the most ordinary places she knew in Germany, and certainly not as beautiful as Koblenz, with bounties of lovely warm stone, spires and cupolas, half-timbering and turrets—but then, one ought not to compare a town of more than a thousand years to one of less than a hundred.
When they left Koblenz, she and Otto had worn leather purses under their clothing, strapped tightly about their waists. Divided equally between the purses, as precaution against theft or separation, was the money given them at great sacrifice by Otto’s family to buy farmland in Indiana. A ridiculous plan—conceived by Otto’s father, Ernst, on the strength of a letter from a cousin who had emigrated thirty years before and had taught himself the trade.
“Franz learned, and so can you learn,” Otto’s father had said to him. “Look what our cousin has made of himself. Do as Franz tells you, and you will make your way faster still.”
Otto had agreed, but only Nina could see he did so because he felt he had no choice. In those years, after the war, the French army controlled everything in Koblenz, and there was almost no work—no profession a man could take up that would do more than feed his family, nothing that would allow him to claim his true place in the world according to his gifts. Each time Otto’s father spoke of farming, in that romantic way of men who have soothed their eyes gazing at well-planted fields without ever having put a hand to the plough, Nina could see her husband’s great strong shoulders sinking another degree.
They had not been false when they took the money—they had intended to buy the land—and through the first month they lived in Franz’s house, they began to think they might make a difficult but satisfying life for themselves as farmers. Little Kurt waved his arms and roared with delight when he was lifted into the hay wagon by one of Franz’s grown sons, and the rolling fields backed by forested hills sloping gradually toward the river reminded them a little of home. After many weeks, Franz drove them into Newman to speak to a lawyer about buying the land, and they stopped for a meal at a restaurant, one of only three in town, a charming place on a principal street, occupying the downstairs of a two-story family house. A house, Nina silently noted, that was for sale.
She said nothing that day, nor for many days—not until she was sure. Not until she had watched Otto carefully and understood that, while he was clever enough and strong enough and dedicated enough to make a good life for her and the boys out of this land, his spirit, in the doing, would wither and die.
When Nina looked at her husband now, a robust man of forty-five serving up handfuls of tiny cookies, directing his boys where chocolate or coffee was wanted, she saw him again in his youth, before the war, happily tapping a keg at Königsbacher, filling glass after glass perfectly to the rim with lovely golden beer, handing out each one with his sincere blessing. After the war, while he again filled the glasses of the brewery’s surviving patrons, Otto’s miraculous laugh and rollicking song could tear away the shroud woven out of their great and many losses.
Once again, she was glad she had spoken all those years ago, on a clear night with an orange moon, the mixed sugar and straw scent of the grain-corn harvest settling over them. Otto had stared past the barn and across the fields at that serene land and she thought perhaps he had begun to see it as Franz did, but when he turned to her in the light of that strange moon, he looked at her as a man must look at the one who wields the ax that splits the prison door.
Nothing about the years since had been easy, except for Otto’s joy. After signing the final papers on the mortgage, he to set to work, spading up patches of grass in front of the house, reseeding the ground with lilies and wild poppies, painting over the greyed-white siding with blue-tinged green, suggestive of ancient forests.
An embittered Franz refused their invitation to the grand opening, and Otto’s family in Germany answered their letters coolly, offering little more than acknowledgment of the small sums Nina wired each month in repayment of the loan. Not until the summer of 1933 was there even a tinge of warmth, when Otto’s mother wrote with obvious relief that she and Ernst were moving to Hamburg with Otto’s sister Elke and her young husband. The new Chancellor has sworn to break the wicked Treaty, she wrote, to make Germany free and whole again. In letters that followed, Nina’s mother-in-law hinted they should return to Germany, as they had no land to hold them in America.
But they were held, Nina tried to explain in her replies, held by what they had built—their restaurant, their small sweet Germany, a community of spirit birthed in this new land. Otto was its heart, vibrant and bright, beating at the center. “What does it matter?” he would say. “Where there is good food and good welcome—and good music, too—there will be good friendship.”
Indeed, today, there was good music, thanks to Hugh’s sprightly playing, and the energetic singing it inspired had driven out, at least for this short time, all talk of war.
Nina had not really noticed the change as it was happening, but suddenly a few weeks ago—as one startles at realizing the long summer day has gone dark—she recognized the mood had turned. Her customers’ voices, once open and warm, became clipped and nervous when she passed near. They spoke of war as a certainty, agreeing with each other that America’s alignment with Britain and France was not only a duty, but a moral obligation, the only hope against Nazi tyranny—the same customers who, well into autumn, had sat at her tables cutting sausages, spreading butter thickly on bread, proclaiming that President Roosevelt would not let the Europeans trick the country into fighting another of their wars. Then last week, just as she had turned toward the kitchen to prepare the order for a family who had been coming to the restaurant for fifteen years, she heard the man, in a tone floating between earnestness and jest, quip to his wife and children, “There’s another dime for Adolf.”
And that humiliating day at the post office, more than a year ago, when she had felt so many of their neighbors’ eyes turning coldly toward them. Upon receiving notice that they were required to register as aliens—aliens of an enemy nation—the four of them had stepped up to the window together to ask for the forms. The postmaster, Mr. Jackson, spoke angrily, as if they had played him a trick. “You’re not citizens? You should have filed your papers years ago. Why haven’t you?” Everyone in the post office, customers and clerks alike, stopped what they were doing and stared at the Austs, waiting for their answer.
What were they to say? It was no small matter to reject one’s homeland.
In the summer before Kurt entered the senior high school, they had nearly decided to file first papers, but then Otto asked for a copy of the oath they would have to swear. On their back porch, the single overhead bulb drawing a thick flutter of moths, he had read it aloud to them, shocking them into silence with the vow to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity” to the country that had given them life, to respect no other bond but their bond to America.
After reading the paper again, slowly, as if this time the words might say something else, Otto said, “A man chooses his wife and pledges his faithfulness to her and to their children, but in doing so, he does not turn and spit on his father and say, ‘You have no claim on me.’ I cannot swear this oath.”
In the restaurant now, having finished the first tune, the assembled company was singing “Joy to the World.” Her platter nearly empty, Nina threaded back through the tables toward the kitchen, trying to avoid knocking into Otto and the boys, who were refilling cups a little too hurriedly, eager to set down their trays and gather at the piano, where they would fill the afternoon with German carols.
When she reached the kitchen door, Nina held the platter high and called out, “More to come, dear friends!”
Many laughed, raising their cups. Others whistled and lifted their hands.
But instead of applause—a great pounding, loud and urgent. A thunder of wood and rattling glass.
A rush of cold as the door flung open.
A shout: “The radio! Turn on the radio! War!”
In the doorway now stood a man stamping his feet, his black coat pocked with snow.
“You have a radio here? Turn it on!”
Behind him, the sidewalk had filled with people—where had they all come from?—and some of those on the sidewalk stepped into the street to flag down cars, motioning for the drivers to lower their windows. Others pushed into the restaurant, wedging past the man in the black coat, sitting down uninvited in the empty seats at the dining tables. Everyone turned toward Otto, who had drawn aside the curtain concealing the little nook where he did his bookkeeping. He was reaching up to the radio on the shelf above the desk.
“I’ll do that,” said the man in the black coat, his bulk and determination forcing Otto aside. Still more people came in, shoving each other, crowding at the windows and between the tables, standing wherever they could make space. Someone thought to close the door, and the chaos of chatter stopped on the instant.
For a few moments, it was quiet, as if the snow had fallen inside the restaurant, covering everything in deep drifts, absorbing even the sound of their breath.
Into this silence leapt a broadcaster’s voice, clear but seeming to tremble in a cloud of static.
A dawn sky thick with rising suns. A harbor on fire. Untold dead.
When they had all heard the report twice through, the man in the black coat turned off the radio and left. Most of those who had come after him followed, not a word passing among them. Everyone else was still, frozen.
Out of the corner of her eye, Nina saw Hugh shift on the piano bench, arching his fingers. She waved, signaling No, but the warning was not needed. Hugh had not been on the point of playing again; he had moved only to close the lid over the keys.
When he did so, the piano uttered a low thrum, enough to break the silence. Now all the words came in whispers—whispers that prompted women to smooth their dresses and wipe their children’s faces and men to reach for their billfolds for money they laid noiselessly on the tables. People began to leave as if by assigned turn, everyone else waiting while one family gathered coats and purses, hats and Bibles. Some of the men nodded as they passed Nina, who had moved to the front door to pick up the basket of St. Nikolas cookies. A few of the women gave brief, tight smiles before looking away.
Though Nina held the basket out to everyone, no one reached in to accept a gift—no one but a small boy who wrapped his fat fingers around the saint’s waist, grinning up at Nina and saying, “Thank you, Mrs. Aust.” At those words, his mother yanked the boy roughly onto the sidewalk, slapping the cookie out of his hand. The boy wailed as he was dragged away, mourning St. Nikolas, now shattered across the snow.