A week ago, on a sunny afternoon, Herr Oberst came to my studio. I was tucking in the tails of my headscarf and eyeing the work I had before me: one embroidered shirt for a Wehrmacht soldier, who I have since heard terrorizes the civilians when he’s drunk; another blouse, still sleeveless and unembroidered, hung on the wooden makeshift mannequin. That one, for the German woman who had transferred to Kiev to be near her lover. She comes to me, all dressed up in city clothing from the west and toting a pair of miniature Spitzes on leashes. She coos to them as if they are precious, innocent children. The urge to kick them all is something I have not yet come to terms with. Years ago, I would never think like this. Years ago, we did not realize we lived in a fairytale.
Dressed in a smart uniform, his dark hair carefully groomed and parted to one side, Herr Oberst examined my studio. And I examined him. His features were handsome but his gray eyes could cut right through you. A schuma was also with him, a policeman I recognized from earlier years whose name is Chovnik. Oh, he calls himself one of us – nashi – but he is a rat! When the Bolsheviks ran this city, he licked their shoes with glee. When the NKVD ran rampant, he led one of their teams. Now, with Kiev sealed off by the Germans, he shines the boots of Nazis. Anything for a piece of bread these days, which is as accessible as diamonds are to peasants.
Herr Oberst came to order one of my shirts. What our traditional dress is to us, a necessity, has become a novelty in high demand. He was ordering it for himself, he told me through the schuma interpreter. In bare feet, I took the Herr Oberst’s measurements. He stood proud and still, as if he were being fitted for a suit by an Italian tailor and had reason to display his colors. His freshly shaven face gleamed the way his freshly licked boots did. Oh, these Germans take pride in their appearance, but when we are on the streets, waiting for the infrequent trams, they do not see us. They pick their noses or pull their pants down to urinate on the sidewalks as if we are not there.
To measure for a shirt, I may start at the base of the neck and then across both shoulders. That’s how I started with the German officer. Avoiding his eyes, avoiding looking at his face entirely, I moved to his front and pulled the tape from the collarbone to just below the belt-line. I am a professional. Measuring men does not bother me, but at that moment I was more than aware of the black cross on the buckle. The Latin letters. I was aware of what lay below that belt, and my hand shook. Not from curiosity, or desire, but from fear of the killer instinct. Like an animal’s, our intuition rarely fails us, and I have crossed borders I never dreamed of in order to survive. You learn to depend on your intuition, and on your intuition alone.
When I was finished, I looked up at the schuma who, looking bored, tapped his baton into his other hand. I had no doubt he was ready to use it if need be. For what, it didn’t matter. They never need a reason. I noted down the two measurements and snapped the tape’s edge between my fingers. Perhaps my movements were too sudden but when I reached up on tip-toe to wrap the tape around Herr Oberst’s neck, he jerked back. It was only a second. I saw the eyes lose their nerve. I saw repulsion fired at me. My breath was caught in my rib cage, putting so much pressure and pain there, I thought I might faint. Behind me, the schuma moved, but the officer raised a hand, gave me the slightest nod, and I proceeded to measure the size of his collar. I know that, as I reached for his neck again, all three of us were picturing that lamppost across the street. We were all remembering that boy they’d hung there last week.