Short Story: Letters From The Exodus:

Father,                                                                                            

I have arrived in Rio de Jeneiro and was met at the port by Hans Reyerbach. He is the boy I remember from my childhood, but he has grown into a man. He is kind and gentle and did you know that he still paints? I remember him spending hours at the zoo drawing the tigers and bears, and imitating the bark of the seals and the roar of the lions. He has helped me find an apartment near his and today we went for a stroll along Copacabana beaches. It is just as it appears in photographs, with the striped umbrellas dotting the white beach and the mountains looming in the background.

It is so hot here that Hans has to wear a thick-brimmed hat that makes him look quite silly. He does not seem to care. We have been painting together. He says that my artwork has come along nicely. I think he is as surprised to see that I have become a woman as I am to see that he has become a man. Last time he saw me I was sliding down the balustrade of our old house in Hamburg.

When I arrived, the first place he took me was to the zoo. The animals here are so different from the ones back home in Germany, or even in London. Did you know that monkeys are not kept in zoos here? They swing freely from tree to tree, chattering, like birds.

Hans has been working selling bathroom fixtures, like sinks and bathtubs, in tiny villages along the Amazon. It is such a waste of his talents, but he comes home with incredible drawings.

I think I’m going to enjoy it here. It is exactly the change I needed.

                                                                                                                               – Margarete

Mother,                                                                                           

Margarete Walstein and I have fallen in love and we are to be married in August. I wish you could be here to celebrate with us. Love surprised me that day. We had spent the morning painting—she is quite talented—but when I looked up at her, I realized what had happened. You know I always follow my heart; I was on bended knee that very evening.

After we are married she will move in with me, so I will no longer be a single man living alone with two marmosets. I knew you thought it odd that a grown man should live with two pet monkeys, but it is not so unusual here in Rio. Margarete loves animals almost as much as I do. I am very happy, Mother, and I hope you and Father find yourself in good health.

                                                                                                                                              – Hans

Father,                                                                                               

The wedding was beautiful, but it breaks my heart that you and Mother could not be here to see me become a bride. I understand the distance is long and that Mother’s health is not what it once was, but I longed for you to see how happy this match has made me.

There have been a lot of changes around here. Hans has quit his job and has begun to make a living from his art. He draws posters and maps under the name H. A. Rey because Reyerbach was too difficult for the locals to pronounce. In the spirit of change, I have altered my name to Margret. I mean no disrespect. I love the name that you and Mother gave me, but I feel like a different woman since I moved her: freer and somehow more alive.

Brazil has been exactly what I hoped it would be. We have become Brazilian citizens and will travel in a month to Paris for our honeymoon. I wish I could see you while I am in Europe, but we are, at the moment, very short on funds.

                                                         – Margret

Mother,                                                                            

I have very sad news to pass along. On the crossing to Europe we encountered cold and rainy weather. Margret knitted sweaters for our beloved marmosets but they both passed away. The grief comes in waves. In many ways they were our children.

The only consolation is the city itself. Paris is marvelous. We are staying at the Terrass Hotel at 12 rue Joseph de Maistre in Montmartre, the neighborhood that houses the artists of Paris. We spend long hours in cafés, talking to other artists. We have both come alive here and we have sent word that we will not be returning to Rio de Janeiro. We have moved from the hotel tower of the Terrass to the apartment tower where we are staying on the 5th floor. From our apartment we can look out over the city. The hotel allows pets and we have adopted two turtles, named Claudia and Claudias. Every day we go sketching along the Seine or at the zoo. Margret has started writing a book for children about nine monkeys and I have been doing the illustration. We even have a publisher who is interested in the manuscript. This has been my dream all along. When I was in the trenches in Kaiser Wilhelm’s army I dreamed that one day I would be able to make a living from my illustrations. It will not be a lot of money at first but it will be enough to support us.

– Hans

Father,                                                                                   

We were so taken by one of the young monkeys in our first children’s book, that we have been working on a manuscript about him. In the book, Fifi, the most mischievous of the monkeys, will be taken from his home in Africa to live in a zoo in America. Along the way he will get into all sort of adventures. We have called it “The Adventures of Fifi.” The monkey reminds me so much of Hans. They share a curiosity and love for exploring that I find extremely endearing. I am hopeful that it will be a success and that children will like it.

– Margret

Mother,                                                                     

We heard today that war has finally broken out in Europe and though the fighting is miles away you can feel it in the city. People are nervous. No one knows what it will mean. Margret and I have decided to take the train south to live and work at a chateau in the French countryside, though we are in no danger here in Paris. We are all praying for a speedy end to this war.

– Hans

Father,

We have arrived at the Chateau Feuga and it is beautiful. Hans and I spent our days in a studio we have set up in one of the towers. I write while he paints. We are working on two books. The Adventures of Fifi, the book about the little brown monkey is almost complete, but we have also been working on another children’s book about a penguin named Whiteblack who loves to travel and see the world almost as much as we do.

We had a small fright yesterday. When we went to the post office to mail a letter to our publisher, the villagers must have heard our German accents, which even our French does not disguise. Hours later a police officer showed up at our door convinced that we were German spies. Luckily, he was convinced when we showed him that our work involved penguins and monkeys rather than codes or secret documents.

We worry every day about our friends in Germany. The newspapers tell us that things are pretty grim for the Jews in Germany. Even Hamburg is no longer safe for people of our faith. I am so glad that you and Mother have moved to England. I guess the best we can do is hope and pray that the war will be over soon.  

– Margret

Mother,

This is the coldest winter I remember. We have gone back to Paris because the chateau had become unbearably cold. Before we left, I finished the title page for The Adventures of Fifi. I drew the monkey in a tree at the zoo holding on to a bunch of red balloons. I hope our publisher likes it. Both books are coming along quite well, although at the moment I have a slight preference for the little penguin. I think that kids will enjoy him the most. We had been hoping to travel to America in April but with the wartime regulations that has proved impossible.

– Hans

Father,

We were beginning to worry that The Adventures of Fifi would never be published. Most of the typesetters in France have joined the army, and paper is scare, but yesterday Hans signed a contract for Fifi and two other small manuscripts and we received an advance from out publisher. We are both elated.

– Margret

Mother,                                                                         

Paris is so different now. The cafés are still open and busy, but there is a completely different feel to the city. The tempo has changed. People are scared. There are refugees streaming in from the north. More arrive each day. There are not enough trains to take them all south. There are reports of people fainting at the train station because there is not enough food or water. I still believe that the French army is strong enough to hold back the Nazi forces, but Margret and I have begun to make preparations in case we have to leave Paris.

– Hans

Father,

The unhappy day is finally here. We have decided that we cannot stay in Paris any longer. The German could arrive any day now. It would not be safe for us. It feels like most of the city came to this conclusion days or weeks ago and now the sidewalks are strangely empty while the streets are full of a gridlock of cars moving slowly out of the city. We have spent the last day going from consulate to consulate: Brazilian, American, Portuguese, and Spanish. Each one has required us to jump through another hoop to get the right documentation. I almost cannot bear another line up. Hans also went to the bank every day this week and withdrew the maximum amount he was allowed to each day. I do not mean to worry you, Father, but I hope it will be enough. There are so many unknowns about the trip that we are about to take. I am trying to look at it the way I have always looked at travel, like it is an adventure, but it is hard to find the joy while you are running for your lives.

I’m trying to make every second we are still in Paris like a photograph in my mind in case it is a while before we can return. The city is so different now. At night the city is bathed in a cobalt glow from the blackout cloths they have put over the streetlamps. It makes the streets seem sinister instead of inviting, the way they used to be. We do our best not go out past sunset, but when you do, you half expect bad guys to spring out at you from every dark shadow. It is enough to make me want to cry. There are air raids almost every night now. For the most part they have been false alarms, but they rouse you from sleep in an utter panic, and we struggle to get dressed quickly and down to the shelter until we hear the all clear.

 The news from the front is what made us decide it was time to leave. It is hard not to be angry with the Belgians for surrendering, but I’m sure they had no other option. The accounts of Dunkirk have made it sound like a complete disaster. There is only one newspaper still printing in Paris because everyone has gone south. I’ve even heard that most of the government officials have left town. The old me would have found that cowardly, but the new me understands it. I have grown to accept the concept of necessary evil.

Hans and I were determined to stay as long as we could, in this city that we adore, but tonight we heard a radio broadcast that said that Paris has been declared an open city. I could not believe my ears at first. They are not even going to put up a fight as the Nazis march into the city. I know they are trying to prevent the city from being turned to rubble, but the idea of the Germans occupying our galleries and museums, and raising their ugly red, black, and white flag above the city, is almost more than I can bear. So we have decided to get bicycles. It is really the only way we can get out of the city because the trains are no longer running out of Paris, we have no car, and most of the taxis are gone or far too expensive. I cry when I think about leaving Paris but it will be wonderful to see Rio again. The plan is to cycle south through France and Spain until we reach Portugal and then take a ship to Rio. From there we have decided to join Anna in America. Though my heart hurts to be leaving, I am excited to finally see New York City.

– Margret

Mother,

 Finding bicycles was not as easy as I would have hoped. Most of the stores here are shuttered so we were lucky to find a small bike shop that was still open. Unfortunately, the only bicycle he had to sell was a tandem and it was immediately clear that we could not get across the countries on that bike. We tried a few times and the results were disastrous. I was beginning to panic when the owner of the bicycle shop mentioned he had some spare parts that would be enough to fashion two new bicycles and that I could use the back room in his shop in which to build them. So, I handed him 1,600 francs, which was almost as much as a full month’s rent at La Terrass, and began to fashion the bicycles, making sure to put the biggest baskets I could find on the front.

We left Paris at five-thirty this morning. It was raining hard. It was the first rain we have seen after a weeklong heat wave. The cobblestones were slick and glistened in the moonlight but we quickly got the hang of bicycling again. We packed light. Margret was carrying some bread, cheese, and a small amount of meat in her basket as well as some clothes and her winter jacket. In mine I had my pipe, some water, and all four the manuscripts, which I wrapped in my winter jacket to keep them from getting wet. We packed up the rest of our things in our apartment and left Margret’s sister, Anna’s, address hoping that someone will find them and send them to us, but we are not hopeful that we will ever see our belongings again.

Soon we were among the long procession of people leaving the city. There was every manner of vehicle imaginable from cars, to buses, to farm carts, as well as other bicycles, and people who had no other option but to leave the city on foot. Outside of the city limits our bodies began to tire. Each passing kilometer became harder. Every part of my body ached and I could tell Margret felt the same way although my dear wife never complained.

The roar of the German scout planes, and the honking of horns, never let up during our trek out of the city. I have never seen so many people in one place in all of my life. I could not help but think that if we had not all been so terrified it might have been like a party, but as it was everyone’s face was grim and few people made eye contact or exchanged social pleasantries.

We have travelled forty-eight kilometers today and have arrived at the town of Étampes. We were very fortunate to find a farmhouse where we could rent a room for the night. We are sharing the room with two other women, but we are exceedingly grateful for the shelter and a floor to sleep on.

I am not sure when I will be able to post this letter, or when you will get it, but I wanted you to know that we are safe and that we have made it out of Paris.

– Hans

Father,

This morning we had to wake up and get back on the road at three o’clock in the morning. We were hoping that the roads would be less busy then, but it seems as though people have been driving or walking all night. Today we only made it twenty-six kilometers to the village of Acquebouille. My body was aching and I could not have made it farther. As we got off the road we noticed a farmhouse. When we knocked on the door and inquired about a place to stay, the farmer’s wife was incredibly accommodating. She gave us fresh milk from her cows and then apologized that she had nowhere better to offer us than the stable. Still, I am incredibly grateful for her hospitality and she did not ask for money in return, which is wonderful because I am worried about the amount of money we withdrew in Paris will not last us for the entire trip.

I am writing you this letter on a bail of hay in the cow stable. I bet you never expected me to say that. Hans has laid down our winter coats and made us a little nest to sleep in. Now that the fear has subsided a bit, my adventurous streak has been reawakened and I’m actually beginning to enjoy myself again.

– Margret

Mother,

Today we bicycled for thirty-two kilometers and made it to the city of Orléans. We were hoping to be able to catch a train form here all of the way down to Portugal, however, you just needed to take one look at the chaos of the train station to know that was not going to happen. Instead we have boarded the train for Bordeaux, with our bicycles, which will bring us one step closer to our end goal.

We bought a newspaper in the train station and read all about how the Nazis arrived at Paris today and marched down the Champs-Élysées. It turns my stomach to think of the swastika flag flying on top of the Eiffel Tower. We also read that Étampes was bombed yesterday, just a day after we went through. It is unbelievable to know that we had such a close call and did not even know it.

– Hans

Father,

We spent three days on the train and so it felt incredible to step down the stairs at Bayonne. A policeman directed us to a local high school where we slept on the floor of their gymnasium with dozens of other refugees. When we awoke we bicycled down the coast to Biarritz and now we are trying to get more travel visas at the Portuguese consulate. I am writing this letter from the line up outside the consulate, under the shade of a tamarind tree. We have been waiting for three hours but it will take at least an hour longer before we get to the front of the line.

If someone were recounting this story to me, the story of how we fled Paris, I think it would sound exciting, but it has been amazing how much time we have spent waiting in a kind of bureaucratic limbo. The downtime has been creatively stimulating though. Our mind have been allowed to wander and we have come up with what I think are some great story ideas.

– Margret

Mother,

Another stroke of luck! We were able to get the necessary papers to travel through Spain and Portugal. I was trying to hide it from Margret but I was extremely worried that we would not get them. While we were waiting in line at the consulate I saw people being turned away. If we had not gotten the right transit visas we would have had to spend the duration of the war in Nazi occupied France, which could very well have been the end of us. Instead, we have travelled to the town of Hendaye, on the French border, where we will be spending the night on the floor of a small restaurant where we were able to make friends with the waiter. We celebrated tonight with sardines and tuna fish. It is the biggest feast we have had since we started this journey.

– Hans

Father,

This morning Hans sold our bikes to a customs official at the train station for 650 francs. It was hard to see them go. After all, they carried us to safety and we may very well owe them our lives. We then got on the train from Hendaye. We had been expecting to have seats but the train was so crowded with Polish refugees that we had to stand for several hours. An official came down the aisle inspecting papers and tickets and when he got to Hans and heard his German accent, he got very serious and demanded that Hans open up his leather satchel. Just like the policeman in Southern France, he suspected that we were spies. However, when he saw that the satchel contained a manuscript about a small brown monkey he looked surprised and then bemused and he handed us back our papers and moved on. I sighed in relief and Hans gave me a look that meant that he was in complete agreement. How lucky we were. Fifi has saved us not once, but twice.

After that we were able to get a seat so we held hands and looked out the window as the train chugged across Spain. The landscape alternated between flat plains and olive groves. Finally, we arrived at the border town of Fuentes de Oñoro. A customs official boarded the train as asked for a much higher fee than we expected. It amounted to extortion, and I bristled in anger, but held my tongue. Luckily, Hans has always been good with money and we had enough to pay the official and were allowed to continue on into Portugal.

– Margret

Mother,

We arrived in Lisbon, the “city of refugees,” and were somehow lucky enough to find a hotel room with a real bed and a bathtub with hot water. It felt like the greatest luxury in the world after so many days of travel and sleeping on floors and in haylofts.

This morning I sent a telegram to my bank in Rio asking them to send us more money so that we could book passage on a ship back to Brazil. The money was wired almost at once but the ship, the Angola, does not leave for almost another month so we have settled here in Lisbon. Today we bought a few essentials and some paper and paints. I’m looking forward to getting back to work.

– Hans

Father,

We have boarded the Angola and we are two days into our thirteen-day journey. We booked two first class tickets so we have a small porthole in our stateroom from which we can watch the sun come up over the horizon. It is breathtaking to behold.

Every night at dinner people tell the stories of what led them to flee their homes. If I wrote books for adults I would write these stories down. They are fascinating. People are drinking and having fun, but I have found it difficult to do so because the weather has been so rough that the boat is constantly rocking from side to side.

– Margret

Mother,

We have finally arrived in Rio de Janeiro. It feels good to be back in a familiar place. We have booked our passage on the Uruguay, headed to America, in October. Unfortunately that means we have two months of waiting. We have rented an apartment and are determined to make the best of it.

In some ways it is lovely to be back and surrounded by the monkeys that inspired Fifi in the first place. We have been working every day and even have ideas of follow up stories to The Adventures of Fifi if the first book is well received.

– Hans

Father,

After two months of waiting, and an eleven-day trip on the boat, we finally arrived at New York Harbor. A tugboat guided us into the harbor and the people on board cheered as we passed the Statue of Liberty. We had to pull up the collars of our coats as we stood on the deck. The weather in New York City is going to be an adjustment compared to balmy Rio de Janeiro, but I feel already as though I am going to love it here.                                                                                                                                  – Margret

Mother,

We are all settled here in Greenwich Village. It is a bustling community of artists and writers. In a lot of ways it reminds me of the home we left behind in Paris four long months ago. I also have wonderful news. We have found an American publisher who wants to publish The Adventures of Fifi. They have made only one stipulation. For some reason they seem to think that Fifi is an odd name for a male monkey, so when our book is published next year it will instead be called The Adventures of Curious George. It will be an adjustment but hopefully the children will like the name just as well.

– Hans

 

 

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