Adolph Hitler and the dissenting Jew
by David Finkle
[ fiction - june 09 ]
Paul Engler wasn't at all surprised when he bumped - literally - into Adolph Hitler on Fifth Avenue. At the moment it happened, he - Paul - hadn't been looking where he was going. His eye had been caught by a window at Cartier's, a store which he'd never actually entered for fear an uppity salesman would snicker at him behind his hands.
Then, suddenly, Paul felt himself come up against an object he knew to take as a fellow pedestrian also possibly not paying attention to his (or her) trajectory.
Turning with a mixture of annoyance and embarrassment to inspect the wayward flaneur, he had to look down several inches, because the man - as it turned out to be - was somewhat shorter than Paul's six-feet-two-inches. The man was gazing into Paul's chest - tweed blazer, Oxford blue shirt, regimental tie.
(For what regiment, Paul had no clue.)
After only a split second, the man tilted his head upward, and Paul was peering directly into Adolph Hitler's face - the close-set and stony eyes, the oily hair (under a soiled cap) descending in a straight diagonal over his brow, the sketch-comedy mustache, the all-set-to-bray mouth.
Sure, it could have been someone who bore what's known as "an uncanny resemblance" to Adolph Hitler, but it wasn't.
Paul knew as much.
Why? How could he be so certain?
Because all his life - or at least since early childhood - he knew that sooner or later Adolph Hitler was coming to get him. Coming to get him, dead or alive - Hitler, whether dead or alive, that is.
Well, Paul, too, for dead is how Hitler wanted him. He was on record about that, was going down in history for that, had scorched the annals of civilized behavior over that.
It was only by accident of birth that Paul had escaped Hitler's clutches so far. (So far, being into the introductory decade of the twenty-first century.) He'd done so by being born in the United States and not Germany or Poland or Hungary or France or the Netherlands - and after Hitler had shot himself.
But that was pure luck. If Paul had been born in Germany or Poland or Hungary or France or The Netherlands and while entire indigenous populations were still kowtowing to Hitler, he surely would have been rounded up and marched through streets past jeering crowds to be loaded onto trains and sent to Bergen-Belsen or Dachau or Auschwitz for gassing.
This he knew and had often asked himself, "Why me? How, when so many people better than me were exterminated, did I get lucky enough to be spared? I could have been born to European parents or my parents, but for the accident of their births, could just have easily been older and lived in the old country and had me in the thirties when things were getting bad but when so many denied how very bad it was getting - even in 1938 when Kristallnacht made it plain this was no passing phase."
Yes, it was unmistakably Adolph Hitler glaring at him, Paul thought to himself. It was unmistakably Adolph Hitler who'd been glaring into his sport coat, undoubtedly checking for a yellow star - or seeing one where there would have been one under other circumstances.
Paul's thoughts were so loud in his head, it was as if a factory whistle had gone off
This was no hallucination. Hallucinations don't have avoirdupois. As far as Paul knew - not that he'd ever studied hallucination pathology - hallucinations also don't have aromas. Hitler did. There was a musky smell rising from him that might as well have had thick, invisible fingers for gripping. That's how tenaciously Paul felt he was being held by it.
The odor was rising from the clothes Hitler wore. It wasn't the uniform he'd worn as the ranting dictator, as the bellowing fascist, but a workingman's outfit made of cheap fabrics, fabrics a step up from burlap - but maybe not a whole step. He had on the loose-fitting jacket and baggy trousers and rough-hewn open-necked shirt of a day laborer with some sort of tatty bandana tied around his scruffy neck.
The stench was so mephitic that Paul looked down at Adolph Hitler's clothes to see what could give off such alarming fumes, the kind of fumes homeless men radiate when occupying subway banquettes everyone else then carefully avoids.
As he did examined Hilter's person, he realized the man was also carrying some objects bound with heavy twine. He knew immediately what they were: canvasses - 18"x12" (or thereabouts) canvasses bound so that only the backs of two of them faced out.
In no more than the time it takes for an eye to blink, a lip to quiver, a hand to tremble, Paul realized he hadn't only come toe-to-toe with Adolph Hitler, he'd also encountered Adolph Schickelgruber, the aspiring painter. That explained the dried paint blotches on his jacket and trousers.
So this is what Hitler is doing now, Paul wondered - peddling his amateurish paintings? Is he on his way to or from Central Park where he'd been recording primitive versions of landscapes? Had he been on the Upper East Side memorializing stately or not-so-stately facades?
Paul wasn't about to ask.
Why should he? This was Adolph Hitler. For all Paul knew, the paintings and perhaps art supplies (brushes, oils, water colors, rags) might not have been all that the short, compact, stinking Hitler was carrying in the satchel he had on his back. With his free hand, Hitler could have pulled a Luger from his pocket and dispatched Paul the way SS guards shot Jews in Berlin and Warsaw streets for the sick thrill of it.
Only a few seconds had passed during which Paul was processing this abruptly lurid information, and he felt no need to let any more seconds go by, particularly since it now seemed as if Hitler were about to speak.
To say what? "Juden schwein" at the top of his lungs.
Paul couldn't run the risk of that happening and so he just put up my hand to wave "No, I don't want anything to do with you" and shook his head so precipitately in dismissal that he thought he'd pulled a muscle.
Then he stepped around Hitler, and as he did, saw the depressing vagrant register a startled, mean look.
That's all he saw, for he didn't look back to check if the grubby Schickelgruber was still there, if he was still rooted to the spot or, worse, was following in heated pursuit.
Paul was so disoriented by the episode that he completely forgot where he'd been headed. (To this day he can't remember his destination.) Instead, he hot-footed it to the subway entrance at the northeast corner of Fifty-Third and Fifth, and only when he'd pushed furiously through an underground turnstile and came to a halt on the platform did he look back to see if Schickelgruber/Hitler was on his trail, on his Jewish tail, determined Hitler-like not to rest until he took his tuchis.
That grim thought prompted Paul, unconsciously, to rub his rear - as if he'd already been roundly swatted by the bound stack of canvasses.
But Hitler wasn't giving chase and, Paul's good luck, a train was approaching.
His relief, though, was short-lived - sustained for only two days, in fact, during which he convinced himself that the Hitler sighting (and smelling) had been his imagination acting up. Not that he'd conjured the manifestation from thin air - or, given the miserable figure and form, from fetid air. There had been something, someone there, all right. He had felt it enough to know it was wasn't ectoplasm he could have, had he been so inclined, put his hand through. He'd sniffed the being, and for hours afterward the foul odor took up residence in his nostrils.
He hadn't heard the thing speak, of course, because he hadn't afforded it the opportunity.
But it had been there, and Paul had to talk himself into believing what he'd initially dismissed: that it was some pathetic street person who suffered the misfortune of resembling Adolph Hitler.
Paul convinced himself - now that he wasn't in actual physical contact with the man - that it had been, must have been, a pitiful soul who didn't even look that much like Adolph Hitler - or the less well-known Adolph Schickelgruber.
He concluded, if tentatively, that his galloping paranoia had supplied the frightening facial alterations.
Consequently, he'd gone over in his mind - and sometimes even talking aloud to himself - what he'd been doing and/or thinking right before bumping into what he'd taken for the miscreant Fuhrer. He tried to discern what might have predisposed him to hang the Adolph Hitler identity on an anonymous pedestrian. He bombarded himself with hard-edged comments like, "You couldn't have seen what you saw" and "Why would you want to do such a thing to yourself?" and "Is this some manifestation of incipient madness?"
No explanation came to him. Not a blessed thing - or even something not blessed but merely mundane. Near as Paul recalled of that afternoon, he'd been in a good mood, going along happily minding his business, enjoying a perfectly fine, if ordinary (thank heaven for the ordinary!), day.
Within hours - many hours - he'd gotten himself back on a nearly even keel. He'd done some work, talked with friends, eaten a few healthy and hearty meals, resumed his life.
He'd mentioned nothing to no one. It wasn't the sort of thing he felt the need to mention. ‘Oh," he heard himself practicing, "The oddest thing happened today. I bumped into Adolph Hitler on Fifth Avenue. No, really, I bumped right into him. I didn't give him the time of day, of course. But there he was, just as plain as you or me. I know. I thought he was dead, too. It just goes to show you can't trust the press."
But that's not the kind of thing you say to friends and expect them to sit silently and take it all in, not wondering what drugs you're on or how they can gracefully excuse themselves for a minute to summon the men in the white suits.
He didn't even confide in his therapist, whom he'd seen the day after the jarring incident. Even with Doctor Rosengartner, he calculated it was something he needed to build up to - and after enough time had passed, he might not have to do that much.
"Look," he sensibly told himself in the mirror more than once, "people go through these things all the time, seeing people who are long since dead. It's an everyday occurrence. I just happened to see Adolph Hitler. No big deal. I'll heal but never heil."
The pale man in the mirror had even come to believe it - almost.
Until Paul was climbing out of the downtown subway at Christopher Street two days later to walk to his Charles Street one-bedroom and, reaching the street, noticed a familiar figure standing on the corner, staring in his direction.
You guessed it: Adolph Hitler.
As Paul began crossing Seventh Avenue with the green light, he realized Hitler was also stepping heavily after him and closing in.
"This can't happen," Paul thought to himself and turned on a dime. (Actually, he turned on a penny that had been pressed into the asphalt, as so many have been pressed into Manhattan streets.) Paul also thought to himself, "I have to know Greenwich Village better than Adolph Hitler does. I can outfox him."
With that, he began a circuitous route up and down and sideways through the Village's famously non-sequitur thoroughfares, moving more quickly than Hitler - still carting his canvasses - was able to. Paul knew he was gaining ground, because from time to time he cast sidelong glances Hitler's way to monitor his progress and, to his satisfaction, noticed his pursuer was falling farther and farther behind.
At one point he saw Hitler stop completely, lay his burden down, put his hands on his knees and take several deep breaths.
Paul took that opportunity to speed up and, at the next corner where he knew Hitler couldn't spot him, begin doubling back to Charles Street. In only a few minutes he'd reached his building.
He looked right and left, furtively.
No sign of Adolph Hitler.
Paul had gotten his keys out along the way and was able to slip inside without - he was certain - being seen.
Allowing exhaustion to overtake him, he mounted the stairs to his third-floor apartment and went in. Before shutting the door behind him, he listened for footsteps behind him.
Nothing. No one.
He shut the door and sat in his club chair for a minute, a chair he'd sat in so regularly over the years that the cracking leather seat was molded to his backside.
He stayed there for several minutes, trying to think positive thoughts. Then, figuring the crisis was over, he pulled himself from the marvelous comfort of the chair to make a few phone calls he'd been putting off.
On the way to his land line, however - he never used his cell phone in the house - he detoured past one of the living-room windows facing the street. His apartment was situated at the front of the building - 3F, as opposed to 3R.
Glancing out the window, which wasn't decorated with curtains but featured only a tired old retractable blind, he thought he detected movement at the end of the block.
He looked more closely.
Uh-huh and uh-oh. Standing on the corner by one of the street's thick-based metal lamp posts was - he couldn't even articulate the name to himself: AH.
And damned if that capped head with those furiously stony eyes wasn't turned towards Paul's windows.
Paul pulled himself back and resumed breathing so heavily he was all but hyperventilating.
Remaining where he believed he couldn't be seen, he lectured himself on control. He asked himself a series of questions. For instance, he asked whether, given the distance between him and the squat figure at the corner, he was still certain of that figure's identity. He asked himself whether that person was truly fixed on his windows or was just panning around to orient himself. He asked himself if - since he was inside, the man was outside and the skies were becoming increasingly overcast - he couldn't wait out the intruder.
That's what he did for the next couple of hours. Two or three times during those slowly passing hours, he edged to the window and, yes, saw the man waiting, rocking back and forth on his poorly-shod feet.
He even had what he thought could be a good idea. He'd call his friend Ellie Bostwick, who lived on Perry Street and, if she were home, ask her to walk around the block and see if she noticed a strange little man loitering on the corner. If so, could she describe him? Did she think he resembled anyone she knew or knew of?
He called Ellie, to whom he always referred as Ellie B. (To her, he was always Paul E, or Paulie - private names being what they were in New York.) She was home and, though sounding more than somewhat skeptical about Paul's unusual request, agreed to fulfill it. She said she had a few things to finish before she could "reconnoiter" - her word, not his - but then would circle the area.
She didn't sound overly enthusiastic, moderately agreeable was more like it. Then again, that was Ellie B. at the best of times.
Paul waited it out, getting some work done that needed to be done. He was on a loose deadline and tackled it with at least half his concentration.
Apparently, he worked up to most of his concentration, because he was jarred from what he was doing maybe forty-five minutes later by the ringing phone.
Funny how insistent the phone can sound at times and at other times merely intrusive or even friendly.
This was an insistent ring. It was Ellie B. She wanted to know what Paul was talking about. There had been no man on the corner, familiar to her or otherwise. Passers-by, yes, but no one stationary, no one anchored and looking around suspiciously.
Wanting to believe her but afraid to, Paul went to the window, still standing somewhat back from it.
He looked at the corner.
No one there.
He asked Ellie if she'd passed anyone who looked to be lurking.
"What does lurking look like?" Ellie wanted to know.
"You know," Paul said, "Anyone who looked strange, who looked as if he didn't belong.
Ellie said, "This is New York, Paulie. Everyone looks strange. No one looks like he belongs."
"Did you see anyone carrying canvasses, anyone with a funny mustache and hair slicked over his brow" Paul pressed her.
‘Manhattan is Art Central," Ellie said. "Every other person you see, especially in this neck of the woods, is hauling a canvas somewhere." Paul couldn't argue that point.
"What's this all about, anyway?" Ellie asked.
Paul uh-ed and er-ed for a few seconds, deliberating whether he should tell Ellie all. He did enough uh-ing and er-ing that Ellie said, "Are you all right? You're acting mighty strange."
"Well," Paul began haltingly, "it's really nothing, but…" He trailed off.
"It can't be nothing, "Ellie said. "You've made some weird requests over the years I've known you, but you've never asked me to walk around the block to spy on people like a zaftig Nancy Drew. Come on, Paulie, tell Mama."
"Adolph Hitler is after me," Paul blurted and both appreciated and regretted the admission.
"What?" was Ellie's monosyllabic response, the accompanying exclamation points flying at Paul like darts.
"Adolph Hitler is out to get me," Paul repeated. "I know it sounds crazy, but..."
"But what? Adolph Hitler - theAdolph Hitler - is alive and well and living in New York for the sole purpose of capturing Paul Engler? Someone hasn't been taking his Zoloft."
"You know I don't take Zoloft," Paul said.
"Then you should start right now," Ellie said, "this minute. Or Paxil or whatever you can lay your grubby fingers on in a big hurry."
"I don't expect you to believe me," Paul said.
Ellie said in the nasal drawl she'd refined over the years, "That's good. At least you have some semblance of sanity left. If you expected me to believe you, I'd have thought you were completely, totally bonkers." There was a slight pause, really the slightest of pauses. Then, "You know what your problem is. You don't get out enough."
"I get out plenty," Paul said.
"You may get out plenty," Ellie replied, "but it still isn't enough. What are you doing tonight?"
"Staying home," Paul said.
"See what I mean," Ellie said. "You're going to stay home so Adolph Hitler doesn't pick you off in a crowd. No, you're going to the movies with me. We're going to the Angelika to see the French movie everybody says is great."
"What French movie?" Paul asked.
‘The one about the lovers in Paris," Ellie said.
"All French movies are about lovers in Paris," Paul said,
"I know," Ellie said, "but, don't you get it? The movie is French. Adolph Hitler won't want to see it. I'm hanging up now. Meet me at there in an hour. And, Paulie, don't try not showing up."
With that the line went dead, the normal kind of dead, not any fishy kind of dead that might have been caused by an interfering other person.
What could Paul do?
He changed into running shoes - just in case - and left the house. But not without looking up and down the street and looking up and down the street again before quitting the front door and not before looking around him every block or so and at every corner and not without, when keeping his eyes focused forward, listening for sinister footsteps behind him.
"Any sign of you-know-who?" Ellie asked first thing when he met her in the Angelika lobby.
"That'll be enough of that," Paul said, "I'm only telling you what I saw with my own eyes."
"When did you last have your eyes checked?" Ellen said, but then she waved a handful of long, red fingernails at him to indicate she was dropping the subject.
The whole while they sat in the lobby waiting to be called for their movie, she held to her tacit promise. Only once, when she caught Paul surreptitiously scanning the large room did she say anything and then only a prolonged and verbally italicized "Un-uh-uh."
Otherwise, she restricted her regularly curled tongue to other matters. She did this straight through to their taking seats in the auditorium, where they were among the first to be seated and whereupon they had to witness the continuing movie-goers rush.
Eventually, the later-comers were clogging the aisles, attempting to spot seats together and jockeying for positions.
In the flurry, someone pushing past the two people on the aisle directly in front of Ellie B and Paul was causing a small commotion. He appeared to be carrying an unwieldy bundle with which he was knocking people on their heads or limbs. "Ouch." "Watch where you're going, buddy," Those kinds of remarks were salting the air.
Finally, the clumsy ticket-holder reached his seat, where, on sitting down, he turned around and looked directly at Paul with beady eyes ablaze.
"It's him," Paul said to Ellie B.
"It's who?" Ellie B said, not sure where to direct her attention.
"The aisle in front of you," Paul said. He was whispering loudly now. "Next to the couple next to the couple next to the couple on the aisle."
Ellie B looked to the left of the three designated couples, but the man had now faced forward, and she could get no clear angle on him. To get a proper look at him, she would have practically had to lean so far forward she might as well have been in the row.
"I'm not going to make a spectacle of myself," she said.
"Forget it," Paul said. "Let's just get out of here."
"Are you nuts?" Ellie said. "The movie hasn't even started."
"Yes, I'm nuts," Paul said, "or about to be nuts. Let's go." He sprang out of his seat and started up the aisle. Exasperated, Ellie got up, too, and hurried after him.
When they were on the escalator to the ground-floor level, Paul said, "I can't look back. Is he following us?"
"No one is following us," Ellie B said.
Paul wished he could take her word for it, but he couldn't. He had to see for himself. Wheeling round, he looked past Ellie B and down the escalator to the receding bottom.
She was right: No one was behind them.
His heartbeat slowing as he was about to tell Ellie B she could relax for the moment, Paul faced front.
And there at the top of the escalator, waiting with canvasses in hand, was none other than the Schickelgruber personage.
That was when Paul knew what he had known all along: There would be no avoiding his long-awaited nemesis, who at that instant held his free hand out toward Paul.
Expecting what? Reaching for what? Beckoning for what?
Paul's utter surrender?
Paul shook his head no and, swiveling back to Ellie B, said, "Now do you see him?"
But Ellie B was still looking in the other direction. "Who? Where?" she said.
"At the top of the escalator" Paul said, pointing behind him.
Ellie B looked where he was pointing.
"Who? Where?" she said again.
Paul looked at the top of the escalator, which they were rapidly approaching.
Again no one. Yet again nothing.
Ellie B put her hand on Paul's arm. "I'm beginning to worry about you," she said. "You're overworked. You're super-stressed. Let's go get something to eat. Or tea or coffee or something really sweet, and you can tell me all about it."
"I just need to go home," he said.
"Maybe that's not such a bad idea, after all," Ellie B said. "You can sleep it off."
They walked the quarter-mile silently. Only when they got to Ellie B's door did she say, "Maybe I should be seeing you to your door."
"It's all right," Paul said, not wanting to alarm her any more than he already had but also not believing that things were anywhere near all right."
"Are you sure?" Ellie asked.
"I'm sure," Paul said.
"You don't look too sure," Ellie said.
"I'm sure," Paul said, not within a country mile of feeling sure.
"If you're sure," Ellie said, unsurely, and slowly opened her door.
Paul started off, only looking back to see Ellie B. She was still standing at her open door and giving him a wan smile.
He smiled wanly back and set off around the corner, looking behind every car, tree and free-standing traffic sign for any hint of the persistent Adolph Hitler.
His stride alternated between hasty and halting - hasty to cover the two-minute trip without incident and halting to detect any indication he was being stalked.
That he wasn't, that the footsteps he heard belonged to innocent pedestrians, to neighbors walking their dogs, to exhausted skateboarders carrying their skateboards did little to put him at ease.
"This is only temporary," Paul said to himself with doleful certainly about Adolph Hitler's inevitable reappearance.
He was so dolefully uncertain that he was not surprised when he walked through the door to his apartment and saw, sitting in the club chair as if there by proprietary right - with the bound canvasses leaning against one of the chair's arms - the man who'd rapidly become the bane of his living-on-borrowed-time existence.
Had Hitler been sitting or standing anywhere else in the apartment but where he was, Paul might have had a drastically different - and much more defeated - reaction than the one he did have. But what flashed through his mind was the thought that the seat molded to his own backside could now be in the process of remolding itself to Adolph Schickelgruber Hitler's rump.
Mounting indignation trumped all his other impulses.
Fight bested flight.
So Paul, motioning Hitler to get up, marched to the chair and, as Hitler stood, said to the little man in a voice the forcefulness of which startled and impressed him, "You've got some nerve, barging in here like this. What do you want? Out with it."
At last, Hitler spoke - in the raspy manner Paul recognized from old newsreel footage. The rasp was somewhat subdued but still raspy.
"Then you know who I am," Hitler said.
"Of course, I know who you are," Paul said. "Whom else could I take you for?"
"Then if you know who I am, you know why I'm here."
"To get the Jews you missed the first time around," Paul said, "but you're not going to get me - not in my own home, where I don't even have any valuable furniture you can appropriate for that Berchtesgaden retreat of yours. You're definitely not about to take possession of thus chair you've just pulled yourself out of."
Having spewed that, Paul looked around for a blunt instrument he might need to defend himself if Hitler got fresh.
"No, no, nein," Hitler. "That's not it."
Paul felt himself becoming more aggressive, less intimidated with every word. He pointed at the canvasses leaning against the chair. "I'm not going to buy one of your lousy paintings, either, if that's what you're thinking."
"I was hoping you'd do that, too," Hitler said, "but I have another, more important reason for being here."
"Not interested in hearing it," Paul said.
But Hitler, now standing with his cap in his hand, continued. "I need something else from you."
Paul looked at the clock on the kitchen wall. It was 8:17. "From me, you're not even getting the time of day," he said.
"Time means nothing to me," Hitler said. "Where I come from, there is no time."
Paul had a crestfallen twinge at not being able to deny Hitler the time of day.
Hitler didn't take that in, though, and went on. "I'm condemned to wander in a nether world until I find a particular person."
‘I'm a very particular person," Paul said. "I'm particular about spending downtime with someone who tried to conquer all of Europe and exterminated six million Jews in the process."
"That's just it," Hitler said, looking as if he'd like to sit down again but not daring to. "The particular person I need to find is a Jew able to forgive me for what I've done to so many of his fellow Jews."
Paul felt faint. "You mean to say," he said, "you're contrite. You mean to say if you can find one Jew who'll forgive you, you - you'll - you'll what? Get a better perch in hell? Get into heaven? Get to rest in peace?"
"Something like that," Hitler said. "I was hoping you are that forgiving Jew."
Paul thought a moment. "Why choose me?"
"Simple," Hitler said, "You have a reputation for being nice. I thought you might be able to find it in your heart to show some compassion."
"Nice!" Throughout Paul's life, he had been nice. What had it gotten him but an unsolicited visit from - of all unwelcome people - Adolph (Schickelgruber) Hitler.
"Did you find it in your heart to show some compassion, any compassion?" Paul asked.
"No," Hitler said, "toward Jews I did not. Towards Eva Braun, some."
"Surely," Paul said, "I can't be the first Jew you've asked, the first Jew you've haunted like this."
"No," Hitler said, "there have been many more. Millions. As a matter of fact, you make six million and one. I thought that might make the difference."
"You thought wrong, "Paul said, "and now I'm going to ask you to leave, which is more than you asked my people when you could have."
Paul moved to take Hitler by the arm but stopped himself. He couldn't bear even the idea of touching him.
Hitler took in the aborted gesture and flinched. Then, regaining a modicum of composure, he picked up his canvasses and, unescorted, walked to the door.
There, he stopped and said, "Are you sure you don't want to reconsider? I can wait."
Paul pointed at Hitler's cap, implying the man should put it on, and said, "I don't need to think it over. I can never forgive and I can never forget. I know forgiveness is supposed to be divine, but maybe there are times when not forgiving is also divine. I hope this is one of them."
He opened the door, and Hitler left.
When Paul had closed the door, he went to one of the front windows to watch Adolph Hitler step out into the street, the same Adolph Hitler who had rallied thousands to salute him whenever he did so much as step out on a balcony.
Paul waited and waited, but as far as he could tell, Hitler never did step out into the street.
On the other hand, Paul never did see him again.
All that remained of the importuning man was the slight pang Paul Engler felt whenever he heard or read the word "forgiveness" or any of its provocative variations.