Authors: Charles Belfoure
But Lucien felt that Manet was right about one thing. The Jews were getting a raw deal. The Germans took away even the most basic everyday necessities—their phones had been disconnected and their bicycles confiscated. And not just the immigrant Jews from Poland, Hungary, and Russia, who lived mostly in the eastern arrondissements of Paris, but the native-born Jews too, the ones who didn’t have that “Jew” look. Professional men like doctors, lawyers, and university professors suffered. And it didn’t matter how famous you were. Nobel Prize winner Henri Bergson had died from pneumonia that he had contracted while waiting in a line to register himself as a Jew with the French authorities. But what was happening to the Jews was a political matter that was out of his control, even if he thought it was unfair.
For a people that were supposed to be so smart, though, Lucien thought Jews had been acting pretty dumb. Since 1933, there had been reports in French newspapers of how the Nazis treated Jews in Germany. Didn’t they realize the Germans would treat them the same way here? Some had made it across the Pyrenees into Spain and Portugal, and others had gotten across the Swiss border early on. They were the smart ones; they’d realized what was in store for them and had saved themselves.
The Jews who had stayed were doomed. Since the fall of 1940, it had been impossible for them to get out of the country. Jews had even been forbidden to cross the demarcation line into unoccupied France. They had to escape the cities to avoid arrest and deportation by the Germans. There must be thousands of them hiding in the countryside, Lucien thought, whole families with kids and grandparents. The Jews who were so used to the good life now had to hide in haylofts surviving on a few grams of bread each day. Compared to a barn, Manet’s hideout would be a palace.
Lucien stood up and began walking through the apartment.
Granted, it was suicide to get involved in this.
But…if it was done cleverly, maybe the Jew would never be discovered, no one would know of his involvement, and best of all, Lucien would make a huge amount of money plus get a big commission out of it. Besides, Manet was a very shrewd, successful man. He might take a calculated risk, but he wasn’t reckless. The old man would’ve thought this all out to the last detail.
Then the image of being lashed to a chair at 11 rue des Saussaies, getting his face pummeled to a pasty red lump, came to mind. Lucien turned to walk toward the door. Still, he thought, with a little ingenuity there could be a place to hide a man in plain sight. He placed his hand on the door handle, then looked back into the empty apartment. Lucien shook his head and opened the great wooden door a few centimeters to see if anyone was about, and stepped out in the corridor.
Then again, Lucien reasoned, the commission alone would make the risk worth considering. To get such a huge project to design was an incredible opportunity that would never have come his way before the war. And God knows, he desperately needed the money; he hadn’t worked since the Occupation began. His own savings were long gone, and Celeste’s money wouldn’t last forever. It wouldn’t hurt to at least look around, he thought. He reentered the apartment and began walking through the rooms.
First, Lucien ruled out the obvious hiding places, such as behind the bookshelves—a stock cliché of American mystery movies—or in a recess at the back of a closet. As if they were the lens of a movie camera, his eyes swept over every square meter of each room, taking in every detail. At the same time, he intuitively analyzed every surface by contemplating the construction of the space behind it—as if he was thinking with x-ray vision. Though Lucien didn’t know how big Manet’s “guest” was, his mind placed an imaginary average-size man within each possible space to see if there was enough room. Lucien examined the beautiful wainscoting along the walls. The wide recessed panels could be removed, opening up a space big enough for a man to fit through. But was that too obvious a hiding place? Probably. There had to be a twist. What if the person had to go through the panel opening and crawl down the length of the wall to hide within another hidden compartment? If the Germans found the removable panel, there would be just an empty space behind it. Unfortunately, as Lucien inspected further, he noticed the walls behind the wainscoting weren’t deep enough for a man’s body.
Then Lucien noticed how unusually tall the baseboards along the floor were. Using the small tape measure he always carried with him, he confirmed they were almost forty centimeters high. Maybe they could be hinged like a flap on a mail slot, so a man could pull them up and slide on his belly into a hollowed-out space. That would’ve been a solution if the wall had been the right depth. Too bad, the Germans never would’ve looked down there.
Lucien moved on. There was a wall along a corridor that curved out in the center, creating a semicircular niche where a small bronze statue of Mercury sat on a meter-high base. A man could crouch inside the base, unless he was really tall. The statue and the wood top of the base would have to be lifted up then put back into place in order for the man to hide. That would be quite difficult to do. Even if the statue was fastened to the top from underneath and the top hinged to the base, it would be very heavy. Lucien picked up the statue and guessed it weighed around fifty kilos. Would Manet’s guest have the strength to open and close the top?
Lucien walked across the room to get a better look at the niche. Lighting a cigarette, he leaned against one of the very tall wooden Doric columns that framed the opening between the salon and the dining area. He looked it up and down and saw its fluted shaft was made from one piece of exquisite chestnut. If only it sat on a tall pedestal, he thought, a person could fit inside the pedestal to hide. Then Lucien noticed how big the diameter of the column was and measured it—about fifty-six centimeters. An incredible wave of euphoria swept over him. Using his own shoulders as a guide, he calculated that the column was just wide enough to fit a normal-size man upright, even accounting for the thickness of the column wall.
Lucien was giddy with excitement. The two columns, which he knew were nonstructural and merely decorative, must be hollow. Smiling, he ran his hand over the column’s shaft; a narrow hinged door could be cut in, with its vertical joints hidden by the fluting. There couldn’t be any horizontal joints showing so the bottom joint would have to align with the base. The top joint had to line up with the column capital above. Though the shaft of the column was almost four meters high, a door could be made that tall if he used a piano hinge. Lucien had once designed a door with standard hinges that stood three meters high. If Manet’s men were as good as advertised, this could work.
He’d done it! It was such a brilliant, elegant, and ingenious solution.
He’d fool those fucking Nazi bastards.
Two hours before meeting Manet and Lucien was already on his fourth glass of faux red wine. The euphoria of tricking the Germans had worn off, and the reality of being murdered by the Gestapo for getting involved in this scheme returned. A thousand things could go wrong. He knew that Parisians were betraying Jews to the Germans every day. Suppose someone tipped off the Gestapo about Manet’s Jew and the column didn’t work? The Jew would give up Manet, and Manet would give him up. He’d be crazy to do this.
Before he’d left the apartment on rue Galilée, Lucien had sketched out the details of the column on a scrap of paper. He turned it over now and began sketching out the building for the factory in Chaville, a suburb west of Paris. He imagined a sawtooth roof to let in light, with glass walls separated by steel mullions one meter apart. Every ten meters he added a brick wall. The entry would have a curving brick wall leading to a deeply recessed glass doorway. Maybe the whole thing could be built of poured concrete, with powerful-looking arches on the inside. He smiled as he drew the profile of the arches, each one with its own flaring buttress to resist the outward thrusts. He tried four different profiles until he settled on the one he liked best.
Lucien had visited Walter Gropius’s Fagus Factory in Germany in the ’30s and had been dazzled by the sleek, clean design. Since then, Lucien had always wanted to design a factory complex. Although it had come to him in a most bizarre way, this commission could be the opportunity he’d been looking for. To prove that he really had talent by designing a large, important building.
He drained the wine in his glass and stared out across the lifeless rue Kepler. The biggest shock he’d experienced when he’d returned to Paris was its surreal emptiness. The boulevard Saint-Germain, the rue de Rivoli, the Place de la Concorde—all were deserted most of the time. Before the war, even the rue Kepler would have had a steady stream of pedestrians in the evening hours. Lucien had loved to gaze out at the city while sipping his coffee or wine in a café, watching for interesting faces and especially beautiful women. But as Lucien sat by the window now, he saw very few people and it saddened him. The Boche had sucked the wonderful street life out of his beloved Paris.
Lucien never got the chance to fight the Germans. Though he hated their guts, he knew he would’ve been a terrible soldier in battle—he was scared of guns. Honor and service to country were ideals cherished by the French, although he’d always thought of them as a load of patriotic horse manure. But since his return to Paris, he’d had a gnawing feeling inside him that he was a coward. This was reinforced by the fact that there were so many women in Paris and so few men—most had been killed or captured during the invasion. But not Lucien. His neighbor, Madame Dehor, had a lost a son, blown to bits attempting to stop a Panzer tank. Six months after the boy’s death, he could still hear her wailing uncontrollably through the thick walls of the apartment building. Secretly, Lucien was ashamed that he was so useless to his country. Sometimes, he felt guilty that he was alive.
And Lucien knew he didn’t have the guts to join the Resistance. Besides, he didn’t believe in their cause. It was made up of a bunch of fanatical Communists who’d commit some stupid, meaningless act of sabotage that would trigger the Germans to kill scores of hostages in retaliation.
Lucien looked at the sketch of the factory. On the whole, Manet was offering him a pretty good deal—if you removed the possibility of torture and death by the Gestapo. One secret hiding place he designed in less than an hour, in exchange for twelve thousand francs, which could buy plenty of black market goods. Plus the factory commission. He flipped the paper over to the sketch of the column, which immediately brought a smile to his face. The sense of mastery and excitement he had felt in the apartment returned. He’d experienced such intense pleasure when he’d realized that the column would work. Maybe this was something he could do to get back at the Germans. Sure, he couldn’t risk his neck by shooting them, but he could risk it in his own way. And besides, given the solution he’d invented, was there really that much risk? The Gestapo would search and search the apartment and never find the hiding place. That image pleased the hell out of him.
This was suicidal. But something within Lucien compelled him to do it.
“You’re what the Jews call a
, Monsieur Bernard,” said Manet, who took a sip of wine. Lucien had made sure they had a table off by themselves.
“What the hell does that mean?” asked Lucien. It sounded kind of insulting, similar to the Jewish word
“I believe it means a human being, a person who stands up and does the right thing.”
“Before I do the right thing, there’re a few conditions.”
“Go on,” said Manet.
“I’m not to know anything…I mean anything…about your goddamn Jew,” said Lucien, looking around him to make sure no one was listening in on their conversation.
“I understand perfectly.”
“What about the workmen who’ll be doing the construction? How do I know they won’t talk?”
“They are men who have worked for me for over twenty years. I can trust them and so can you.”
“The tenants will wonder what’s going on when they hear all the noise. Every one of them would be deported if a Jew was found in the building. If they suspected anything, they’d inform the Germans to save themselves.”
“There’s a risk, I agree, but the concierge has been well paid to lie if need be. All the tenants are at work during the day. Besides, your solution is ingenious because it’s so simple—there won’t be that much noise.”
“What about the owner of the building? What if he gets wind of the work?”
“I am the owner, Monsieur Bernard.”
Lucien finally relaxed and sat back in his chair. With those concerns out of the way, it was now time to get down to business.
“You mentioned a fee of twelve thousand francs, Monsieur Manet.”
Manet produced a thick hardback book out of the satchel he held on his lap. He placed it on the table and pushed it toward Lucien.
“Do you like to read? This novel by the American writer Hemingway is most entertaining,” he said with a great smile.
Lucien never read anything except architectural magazines. But he did go to the cinema and had seen all the American films based on great works of literature, so he could pretend he’d read the books.
“Of course, Hemingway.” Gary Cooper starred in
in 1932. It was a damn good film.
Lucien slowly picked up the book and examined the cover, then began to fan the pages. He abruptly stopped when he saw the first franc note nestled in the hollowed-out book.
“It looks most interesting. I’ll start it tonight before I go to bed.”
“I know you’ll enjoy it,” replied Manet.
“Now, did I hear you correctly when you said you’d be needing additional factory space for your new contract?” Lucien asked, holding on to the book with both hands in his lap.
“You did indeed. Why don’t you come to my office the day after tomorrow to discuss the project—say about two. I’ll have all my requirements written out for you. I’m sure you’ll need to go back into the apartment to take a few measurements for a drawing, so hold on to the key.”