Love in the time of Spies
by Frank Thomas Smith
East Berlin, March 1968
Rachel Baumgartner and Dr. Hans Niedermaier were huddled over a map of West Berlin in a small basement room with no windows. A long florescent light on the ceiling hummed like a beehive. They were preparing a list of objectives that the Soviet Mission Military Patrol was to photograph on its next rounds. Hans Niedermaier, a robust middle-aged man with a goatee and rimless glasses, was doing the selecting and dictating to Rachel, who made notes in German and Russian in a stenographer's spiraled notebook made in West Germany. She was young and pretty and intense; there was a certain hardness about her which would have seemed unusual in one so young, if we did not know that they were in the building in East Berlin that housed the STASI – East Germany’s State Security organization. It was difficult for them to think of objectives in West Berlin that hadn’t already been photographed.
A phone rang in an adjoining room and a young man yelled from there: "Fräulein Baumgartner, it's for you." She sighed as though annoyed, but was relieved to escape from her co-worker’s halitosis for a while. It was the Director's secretary on the phone, who told her to go directly to the boss's office. The secretary waited only for her to confirm: "Jawohl, Frau Schmidt, aber..." and hung up before Rachel could ask why she was being summoned to such lofty heights. She walked quickly back to Dr. Niedermaier, "I have to go upstairs, Herr Doktor. Sorry, I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Anything the matter?" he asked, noticing her nervousness, but also curious.
"No." If she said that the Director wanted to see her it would be all over the office in a matter of seconds. She hurried off to the paternostro, the ancient but reliable dumbwaiter-like elevator, and stepped in like the experienced passenger she was. It fit only one passenger in each compartment, so she could wonder in private what the Director, Herr Dr. Wolff, could possibly want with her. She hadn't done anything wrong that she was aware of, but she knew that one was not always necessarily aware of one's own wrongdoing. The paternostro was slow, for safety reasons, but it arrived on the fourth floor too soon for her. She wished she wasn't wearing those ugly, but warm wool stockings. She knocked on the Director's door and heard Frau Schmidt's hoarse cigarette voice calling her to enter.
Frau Schmidt, a dumpy fiftyish, rose and opened the Director's door behind her. "Fraülein Baumgartner," she announced. Instead of telling Rachel to wait, she stood aside as the Director himself came out smiling and took Rachel's hand. She thought for a moment that he might kiss it. He was a tall, moderately ugly, middle-aged man with crows-feet behind his eyes from smiling. He wore a double-breasted suit, obviously western made, and was as elegant as any capitalist CEO.
"I'm very pleased to meet you, Fräulein Baumgartner," he said, in a surprisingly high voice. "Won't you come in?” Why should he be pleased to meet her? Rachel thought. Well, at least he didn't sound as though he was about to fire her. The office was as elegant as he was, and warm. Ah, a fireplace – and burning wood instead of coal. He invited her to sit.
"Coffee or tea?" he asked. She chose coffee. "Bring us two coffees, please, Frau Schmidt," Wolff ordered as he closed the door.
"Now," he said sitting behind his desk across from her," you must be wondering why I sent for you."
"Ja, Herr Direktor, I was wondering that."
He looked at her for a few moments before going on, studying her pale face, untidy hair and proletarian clothing. "I knew your father," he finally said.
She nodded and smiled.
"I was a student of his before...actually when the Gestapo got him."
"In Leipzig?" It was a stupid question, because it must have been Leipzig, but she felt she had to say something.
"Yes. He was a brilliant man and a dedicated Communist."
"I know," Rachel, agreed, "and a good man."
"And that combination – good, a Communist and a Jew to boot, was what doomed him." Rachel didn't know if he was being cynical or simply stating an obvious fact. He certainly didn't sound sympathetic. She wondered what saved Wolff from the same fate. Perhaps he had been none of those things her father was.
"I had no reputation and wasn't a Jew," Wolff said, as though divining her thoughts. "So I was drafted, but deserted to the Russians." He smiled. "It's an interesting story, but I won't go into it now." Did he intend to go into it later? she wondered as Frau Schmidt entered carrying a silver tray with the coffee things. She poured while they sat in silence. Rachel knew from the aroma that the coffee was real.
When his secretary had left, Wolff said, "I'll come right to the point, Fraülein...May I call you Rachel? As your father's friend and the difference in our ages, it doesn't seem incorrect." Rachel Sie or Du? No, that would be too much. "Of course, Herr Dr. Wolff," she said.
"Good, thank you," he smiled. "How long have you been with us, Rachel?"
He must know that, she thought. "A little over a year," she answered.
"Already a year? And I know from the records that you did very well in training and have been doing well in your work as well."
"You know, of course, that we have people in the west."
"And, as you can imagine, we don't send just anyone there." He paused as though expecting a reply, but she remained silent.
"There are many temptations there – if one isn't a good socialist, that is." He paused to let that sink in. “Are you a good socialist, Rachel?"
She sighed. "You know that I am, Herr Direktor."
He laughed. "How should I know that? Socialism isn't necessarily inherited, you know.”
"In my case it is," Rachel answered seriously. "I loved my father very much and admired his ideals."
Wolff raised his eyebrows: "Admired?"
"I loved them," she clarified.
"You are speaking in the past tense, Rachel."
"I meant when he was alive. I still do and I am a committed Socialist, Herr Direktor," she answered, returning his gaze.
"I believe you are, Rachel," he said. "Do you take sugar?"
"No, thank you."
“Well, then, please." He picked up his cup and sipped. She followed suit, glad that her hand wasn't shaking. And why should it be? They understood each other and she knew she had passed the test, for whatever purpose it may have been posed.
"Are you really fluent in English?" he asked in fluent English. "Forgive my asking, but I've found that fluency is relative where our people are concerned."
"I don't think I am," she replied in English
He frowned. "Explain, please."
"My English is from studying. I have had little practical experience in the language."
"But it sounds very good to me." He reverted to German. "I didn't expect you to sound like a native speaker. More coffee?"
"It's very good," she said and smiled for the first time.
"Yes, it is." He poured another cup for her. She noticed that he hadn't touched his own.
“Your file says that you also know some Spanish.”
“Yes, but also from studying.”
“How good is it?”
“Quite good, I think.”
"I have a job for you, Rachel," Wolfe said. He put three heaping spoonfuls of sugar in his cup and drank it down in one gulp.
"In the west, Herr Direktor?" she asked.
"Yes, my dear, in the west," he answered in English, probably because it wouldn’t do to have said “my dear” in German. He went to his desk and pushed a button.
"Ja, Herr Direktor?" Frau Schmidt answered.
"Is Lieutenant Cornelius there?"
"Ja, Herr Direktor"
"Send him in, please." He stood facing the door, which opened immediately and a young, tall, well-dressed man entered. He was handsome, too handsome to trust, Rachel thought. He stood ramrod straight before Wolff: “Guten Morgen, Herr Direktor Wolff”. Wolff smiled and held out his hand. The other took it, but did not return the smile.
“Now I must introduce you, Stasi style”, Wolff said ironically. “Frau Cornelius, meet Herr Cornelius.” Both young people stared at Wolff more in confusion than surprise. Wolff had of course expected that reaction, and he played his histrionic hand to the hilt. “I must apologize for springing this on you so formally, especially since you, Frau Cornelius, have never heard your new name. But please, let’s relax and sit here.” He indicated a couch and easy chairs in the corner of his office. They both hurried to occupy single-seating chairs. “Would you like another cup of coffee, Frau Cornelius?” Rachel nodded and Wolff pressed the intercom button on his desk and told Frau Schmidt to bring three more coffees. “And please don’t be so stingy with the sugar, Frau Schmidt.” He then sat on the couch, crossed his legs, spread his arms over the back of the couch and smiled at them.
When the coffee appeared and Frau Schmidt had left the room, Wolff became serious. “Here’s what we plan for you,” he said. “Lieutenant, you and your wife will defect to the west. Oh, by the way, you and Miss Baumgarten will officially marry as soon as possible. A secret love affair, you see. You will receive the necessary training in spycraft and, much easier, the travel agency business. This will take about six months. Once you are deemed ready, you will defect to West Berlin and report to an American military post. This is a logical step for one of our army officers. You feel more at home with your peers. We don’t want you in the hands of West German intelligence or the CIA. American Military Intelligence is stupid and amateurish, which ours is also, by the way; that’s why we don’t let them handle anything of importance. But the Americans are worse, their various intelligence services compete with each other and very often one doesn’t know what the others are doing or what they know. Army intelligence is the worst, mostly because they rotate officers and enlisted men in and out, so that once they have gained sufficient experience to know what they’re doing, they’re gone. There are individual exceptions to this, but they are few and far between and only handle important items and people. You will not be deemed important enough.” He drank his coffee slowly but completely and looked at them. “Are you following me so far?”
Both nodded, somewhat hesitantly.
“Good. They will interrogate you, but courteously. You will be treated as guests, VIPs even, most probably at their interrogation center, Camp King, in Oberursel, just outside Frankfurt. You will be cooperative, as behooves defectors seeking a new life in the consumer society.”
“What should I tell them, Herr Direktor?” Cornelius said.
“Everything. Unless you know some deep dark secrets about us, you won’t be able to tell them anything they don’t already know. They will want to know about Order of Battle of course, but especially morale. They will question you about our army’s morale. You will tell the truth.” Wolff looked at Cornelius, waiting for his reaction, which gave the latter the courage to give it.
“Morale isn’t really very good, Herr Direktor.”
“You don’t say,” Wolff said, unsurprised. “That’s what you will tell them then. They already know it anyway. You must tell the truth about such things so you will not be under suspicion. Understood?”
“Good. Now you, Mrs. Cornelius, they will interrogate you as well, but not with much interest. You have only to confirm your husband’s account and tell them about life in East Germany in general, the truth. We have invented an employment for you, in the travel department of the foreign ministry, which will provide a rationale for taking up the same profession in Argentina.”
“Argentina, Herr Direktor?”
“Yes, your penultimate destination. But we’ll go into that tomorrow. I have an appointment with the Chairman now, and don’t want to keep him waiting for more than is his due.” He stood up. The others followed suit. “Until tomorrow, then, at nine o’clock here.”
“In the morning?” Cornelius asked.
“In the evening,” Wolff replied. “You may go now. I suggest you get to know each other.” He pressed the intercom button and told Frau Schmidt to call the Chairman’s office and advise that he was on his way. He stopped halfway to the door. “By the way, I almost forgot.” He grinned wolfishly. “This is all voluntary of course. I'm afraid I assumed that you would both agree. So please think it over and let me know what you decide tomorrow. And...this meeting was secret, top secret in fact, so you are not to mention it to anyone.
As they approached the elevator the lieutenant said to Judith, “The paternostro only holds one at a time, not a good way to get to know each other. So perhaps we could have a drink somewhere, or...”
“We should decide first,” Judith interrupted him. She felt herself blush. “I mean...you know...”
Yes, of course, I just thought...” He held his hand out with a slight bow. She shook it and jumped into a paternostro box as it passed. She saw his pressed trousers and gleaming black shoes as she descended. “The next time I see him I will be dressed appropriately,” she thought as she glanced down at her woolen stockings.
Back at her desk she ignored the papers and stared into the distance, her heart pounding. “Is something wrong, Judith?” Staudenmaier asked her. “What?...Oh no, it's just that...that I must leave early today. Is that all right, Dr. Staudenmaier?” Staudenmaier had asked her several times to call him Hans, but she could never bring herself to do it. He liked to think of himself as fatherly, or at least avuncular, but actually, despite the thirty years difference in their ages, he was quite in love with her. “Yes, of course, but...” She had already picked up her purse and was heading back to the paternostro before he could finish the sentence.
Continued in the next issue of SCR