Friday, August 6, 2021

Fatal Illusion by Larry Martin (

Berlin, January 1, 1933

At noon Karl Landmann, age forty-five, entered Gottlieb’s Café, a neighborhood eatery on Friedrichstrasse. Inside he found his friend Levi Wolff, sitting at a corner table. Levi, thirty-six, rose as Karl approached. They hugged and took their seats.

“So, Karl, you wanted to meet me here. Business, I assume?”

“Yes, and Happy New Year to you. Gottlieb’s I knew was open, has good food, and is quiet so we can talk. I trust Miriam doesn’t mind you leaving home for an hour this holiday.” 

“To meet her dearest cousin Karl? Of course not. Now if your name was Caroline…”

Karl smiled. “I know. You would have hell to pay.” He did not wait for a rejoinder, instead turned to look over the small dining area, then back to face Levi.

“Levi, see that old man over at the counter? That’s Chaim Gottlieb. He owns the place. Opened it just after the Great War, in 1920.”

“So you asked me here on New Year’s Day to give a café tour?”

“Tell me, Levi, how is your family?”

“Family’s good. Our oldest, Gretchen, is in grade school, and Matthew is learning to use the toilet. And Miriam, God bless her, is holding down the house – keeping everyone happy and healthy. And by you?”

“Cannot complain. Ruth is fine. Both kids in secondary school, doing well. And business is good. My coat factory is up to ten employees. Everybody needs a coat in our miserable winters.”

“So now we come to business. Karl’s Coats is still only coats? I remember you once talked of expansion.”

“Yes, yes, eventually to all men’s clothing. That’s my plan. Next, I want to manufacture… pants!”

“Ah, so, my Wolff Pants Factory, that’s why I’m called to this squalid café. I could have guessed.”

“It’s not squalid. And the meal’s on me. Levi, you remember we joked about this once, over a year ago. You said, “one day you’ll buy me out, and I’ll retire rich.”

“Yes, I remember, Karl. Not sure about the rich, though. So, you’re making an offer?”

“Yes, I am prepared. Are you listening?”

The waiter appeared with menus, but Karl motioned they weren’t necessary. “Just bring one large plate of sauerbraten, a pitcher of beer, and some pumpernickel. One check, please.” The waiter nodded, then walked away.

Levi picked up the conversation. “So, back to business. You are interested in my factory? But how can you make an offer? You haven’t been to my place in over a year. Do you know we’re now up to five workers?”

“I know. I have spies.”

“I should have known.”

“But, Levi, only five? Just last week my source counted six, plus yourself. Did you let someone go?”

 “Then your spies don’t have the latest information. And by the way, is one of them named Mandelbaum? He’s always complaining, that one.”

“Not Mandelbaum. Not anyone in your employ. It’s a trade secret. So tell me, who left you?”

“One of my workers, a single man, only twenty-four. He immigrated to America just last week.”

“America? He has family there?”

“Only a distant cousin. His family is here in Berlin. His parents, and two older sisters, both married.”

“So why the move?”

“A better life, he thinks. I don’t know. He told me he is fearful of Herr Hitler’s rise to power. It now appears Hindenburg is going to appoint Hitler Chancellor of Germany.”

“I know. And this scares the young man?”

“He said he went to one of the local Nazi political rallies, out of curiosity.”

“A Jew at a Nazi rally? They let him in?”

“He wore the Nazi armband, he said, just to get a view. And he doesn’t look all that Jewish.”

“So, what happened that sends him to America?”

“He said he left the rally shaking. Everything was damn Jew this, damn Jew that. All damning. That’s when he decided.”

“Well, he will meet a lot of fellow Germans in America. As for here, yes there is anti-Semitism, as there is throughout Europe. Always has been. But even with this awful depression the past three years, the clothing business seems to be thriving. Ironically, the Nazi showing in last year’s elections has boosted morale, and now my business is growing. Yours also, I know. We are German citizens, for God sakes. And I am a war veteran.  Tell me Levi, when was the last time someone called you a damn Jew?”

“Let me grade school. And I punched him in the face. That taught him a lesson.”

“For me, it was in university. A young radical, who turned out to have a mental condition of some sort. As I recall, he ended up getting expelled. So there is anti-Semitism, but it’s mostly the fringe. It’s not government policy. So, Levi, do you have interest in selling me Wolff Pants?”

“Did I hear a price?” 

“Ten thousand Reichsmarks.”

“For everything, the building, machines, and inventory?”

“Yes, it’s a fair price. The building is worth about five thousand, the inventory and machines about three thousand, and then another two thousand will be profit for you. And I will keep you on as my assistant manager, at a fair salary.”

“Karl, if we weren’t connected by marriage, I’d be suspicious you were trying to rob me. But if you did that, Ruth would never sleep with you again.”

“So, that’s your insurance. Ruth thinks my offer is fair, generous in fact. And for the record, she will never give up sleeping with me.”

“So your offer is up front, no credit?”

“Up front, no credit. I have access to the funds.”

“Then I will admit, the amount seems fair, but what guarantee for my workers?”

“Your workers?”

“I can’t sell out if I know you’re going to let some of them go. You need them to make the pants, of course, but there must be job security for everyone.”

“Of course. I will guarantee all of their jobs for a full year. One never knows how business will go, so that seems reasonable.”

“How business will go? You mean when Hitler becomes Chancellor?”

“I just want to make sure we get out of this economic depression, which seems likely. People always need coats, but if I expand there is of course some risk. A year guarantee for your workers is fair.” 

“Your offer intrigues me, Karl. Let me discuss with Miriam and a couple of my employees. Get their sentiments. I don’t want to make a hasty decision. Say I get back to you in two days?”

“Fair enough, Levi. So, what do you think about Hitler and his fellow Nazis? Should we be worried?”

“We should always be concerned, Karl. But not to the point of picking up and moving. We have families, businesses. We are no longer young and single.” 

“I agree, Levi. Given the Jews’ contributions to the German economy, and the politicians need for strong businesses, I don’t think we have much to fear. The Nazis are not Jew-friendly, for sure. But their leader isn’t stupid. I don’t think Hitler will do anything to hurt the Jews, for that would hurt Germany.”

-- END --

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