Volume 32, Number 1

She Discovers Her Grandfather the Republican Lawyer Was a Secret Nazi Hunter

I see you’ve found me out. From a book, of course. I knew you would be a reader. I saw how your Russian-green eyes held mine, even at ten months. And what I did, was the right thing to do. We knew already, even in 1934, what they meant.

Don’t think Chinatown. Think Elliot Ness, snap-brim fedoras, Fred Astaire suits with high waists, eased through the hips, loose in the thighs. Family photo: Weber and Fields, hottest team in vaudeville, my uncle and his partner, first to ask why the chicken crossed the road. Your great-grandmother, face like a cameo. Your grandmother, never at home in her chic hat, silk stockings sagging, looked like she’d fall over just standing there. Your father, my son, already deaf from meningitis, and your aunt, loveliest three-year-old that ever lived, except you. And she died her next year, dancing in that damned grass skirt in front of the electric heater. She burned to death because your grandmother didn’t know how fire worked, fanned the flames instead of smothering them. She could never atone for that, could she? So she kept smothering, and craving oxygen, all the days of her life.

I was a hot-shot City Attorney, not bad for a Jewish boy, son of a Russian tailor. I waited five years until USC’s quota gave me a shot at law school. No wonder David Lewis sounded me out. He saw I burned for more, put me at the center. I stitched the agents’ reports together. But I never played at the brown-shirt meetings. I had a family, your deaf father, your crazed grandmother. By then I didn’t have my daughter. Your grandmother was just another good reason not to be at home. Sure, there was another woman. Didn’t I look like a louse—perfect cover. I stayed late at the office, I found out about the German agents who approached the tech crews from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, I took reports from the mother and daughter who infiltrated the parties at the beer gardens. They told me about the home-grown Fascists who weren’t even Germans, the sweaty guys in short-sleeved shirts with crummy ties, suits that rode up behind the shoulders, the ones flashing their Colts, trying to look like they were important.

But I was the one sent to meet the Germans with Kultur, the guests of honor at the embassy receptions, string trios playing Beethoven in the background. Jewish violinist, Jewish pianist, Jew on the cello. Cosmopolitan, we got called. It meant, we knew about something larger than our own lives. Think I didn’t see the cultural envoy flare his nose, sniffing for the smell that wasn’t there? Think I didn’t see the envoy in his European trousers, wiping his hand after clasping mine? Think again. I belonged, though I did not pass. My white tie was correct, my shoes were perfect.

—Karen Greenbaum-Maya