Book Excerpt

Inside the book: The Blue Rider


May 1, 1941
Talsi , Latvia

Rachel stood in the moonlit darkness staring at her statue: Hitler and Stalin, each thirty feet tall. Flesh and blood seemed to move beneath their uniforms as the Russian and Nazi dictators clasped hands in a gesture of peace and friendship.

She turned on the flood lamps and climbed to the top of the scaffolding for a final look at the two heads. Even from a few inches away she saw life in

Stalin’s cat-like smile and Hitler’s scornful glance. If only she could climb down and walk out of the studio and not look back, not think about the months of eighteen-hour days she had spent pushing herself to finish the statue before the summer.

She satisfied herself that she had won—the sculpture was finished. Tomorrow or the next day Russian agents would come and load it into a truck and take it to Moscow. She wouldn’t be present; officially, this would be her father, David Hirschfeld’s work.

Not that anyone in Moscow would believe that she , a woman of twenty one, just slightly over five feet tall, could have sculpted this monument. Her hands were deceptively small and her thin manicured fingers appeared too delicate to have crafted even a vase. This was by choice, for she had always taken great care with her appearance. She had inherited her mother’s fine skin, high cheekbones, and upturned nose, but with her ash-blonde hair cut fashionably short, she knew that her large hazel eyes gave her the face of a school girl on vacation for the summer.

Better him than me , she thought. He had shaped her artistic career from its inception and now he would complete the circle by putting his own name on a work that would make him infamous for the rest of his life—if Stalin allowed it to be seen in the light of day.

As a child she had watched her father, a powerful man with broad shoulders and thick muscular forearms, carve pillars of stone into abstract creations she thought of as her friends. Soon she experimented with his materials, scrawling on long sheets of paper stretched across his studio’s concrete floor or pouring out bottles of liquid color and stamping her small hands and feet into the paint. He taught her to draw and she delighted herself with rough, yet recognizable pencil sketches of objects she couldn’t even name. By the time she turned seven she could model a clay figure from her drawing. Her mother made a display area for her work in the summer kitchen. Proudly she took her finished pieces home to be judged; for each one that Elizabeth chose for exhibition, her grandfather gave her a gold coin that she flaunted before her younger brother, Stephen, and their friend, Lily. At her grandfather’s death, she had won over a hundred coins.

On her twelfth birthday her father took her out of school and drove her to the studio. There, in the study looking out onto a field still covered by spring snow, where a dozen of his red and black metal sculptures stood out against the white and blue backdrop, he presented her with her gift. Still wearing her school uniform, a navy-blue wool dress with a black pinafore, white collar and cuffs, she sat on the couch, her high button leather boots just reaching the floor, and peeled away the plain brown wrapping.

Her father threw a chunk of birch onto the hot embers; flames curled up and her hands shook with excitement as she pulled an old book from the wrapping, its thick pages trimmed in gold. On the cover the words Almanach Der Blaue Reiter stood beside a figure on a horse.

“When I was young,” her father explained, “I belonged to a group of artists called The Blue Rider . This book was our declaration of independence. It was written in 1912 by Wassily Kandinsky and another artist named Franz Marc. But Kandinsky invented the symbol of The Blue Rider .”

Rachel leafed through the pages, looking at the illustrations of paintings, each one covered by a transparent sheet, as he told her how the book came to represent Kandinsky’s belief that artists could change the world through their art by leading mankind to a new, spiritual realm. “By giving it to you, I’m making you a member of The Blue Rider .”

She found it difficult to believe what she had heard. She had thought he might give her a special present, a drawing perhaps, or possibly even a painting from his private collection. But to be asked to join his artist’s group was an unimaginable honor. Membership would require that she

accomplish a difficult feat.

“What do I do as a member?”

“Ask yourself why you are an artist. Whether there is a purpose behind your gift.”

I know the answer to that question already , she thought. There must be something more involved.

“I’m an artist because God made me one. Isn’t that enough?” He didn’t answer her question. Instead he told her the story of how he became an artist: the scion of a wealthy Odessa shipping family, he turned his back on the family business and, at seventeen, went to Munich in 1902.

He took up residence in Schwabing, the artist’s quarter, and enrolled in the Phalanx, an art school founded by Kandinsky. After a year of frustration, he admitted he lacked a painter’s eye and reluctantly turned to sculpture. He labored as an apprentice to the dictatorial sculptor William Husgen for five years. Then he broke from the master and followed Kandinsky’s lead, moving towards a more abstract art. Finally, in 1911, Kandinsky asked him to submit a piece to an exhibition that he and Franz Marc were going to hold in defiance of an artist’s association that had rejected their work as too radical. Kandinsky’s new association was called The Blue Rider .

Transfixed by his story, Rachel visualized Franz Marc as the high priest of The Blue Rider and Kandinsky, its Merlin. The Blue Rider was like King Arthur’s Round Table, only there were artists instead of knights, sworn to a sacred mission, a quest she herself now joined. Enthralled, she payed no attention when he declared, “Your problem is different than mine. You have so much talent it might overwhelm you.”

But he repeated his warning again and again over the next five years as he devoted himself to giving her the means to control her gift. She absorbed

all that he had to offer. When he had nothing left to teach her, he built an addition to the studio for her, where she could do whatever she pleased.

At first, Rachel thought that freedom, by itself, would result in her finding her own voice. But experience taught her a different lesson. For four years she struggled to develop her own vision, moving from carving, to modeling, to finely detailed clay figures that thrust out into space like leaves. She became bored with abstractions—they all looked and felt the same. She returned to a more representational art, for it allowed her to revel in nature’s fine distinctions. In the midst of her struggle, the Russians invaded Latvia.

They fired no shots, and some of the townspeople even welcomed them, throwing flowers onto their tanks and hugging the baggy-panted Red Army infantrymen. But within days the would-be liberators herded whole families into boxcars that disappeared into the eastern horizon. Because her father was of use, they were spared. The Russians ordered him to produce bronze busts of Stalin and Lenin that were now found in buildings throughout the Baltic States.

Rachel had modeled all of those busts herself so that her father could continue with his abstract sculptures. They took up only her days; at night she returned to her own pieces. While the mansion her grandfather had built, and its twenty eight acres of gardens and orchards, was confiscated, along with their summer house in the mountains, they were permitted to remain as tenants in their home. To ensure that they stayed in favor with the authorities, she painted portraits of the commissars and their families on weekends.

She minimized the waste of her talent by telling herself that the busts and portraits were practice-work, until a member of the Central Artists Committee arrived with word of the statue . A heavy-set man who smoked a cigar, Avilov greeted Rachel effusively.

“So you’re the wunderkind . Your father says you have more talent in your pinky than he has in his whole body.”

Rachel couldn’t help but laugh in response to the jolly man’s manner. Avilov presented the project to her father as an award: Stalin himself had approved the sculpture and intended to give it to Hitler as a token of their continuing friendship. Though Avilov and her father had known each other since the 1920’s in Moscow, not even in the privacy of the studio, with just the three of them present, would Avilov say aloud that Stalin hoped the statue would forestall any invasion of the Soviet Union.

“That’s the whole point of this, this monstrosity,” her father said later, after Avilov had left them. “Stalin’s scared to death Hitler will invade.

He’s got nothing to worry about. Hitler’s too smart to take on Stalin and England at the same time. This statue will only make Hitler think Stalin’s afraid of him.”

Rachel’s first look at the sketches Avilov unrolled for her father filled her with foreboding. But her father believed—and had persuaded her—that she could tolerate whatever the Russians forced upon her—even this—and still continue her own work. “You can survive by creating Stalin’s monsters because your talent is God-given,” he declared.

The statue had proven him wrong. For a year she worked on nothing else. And now that it was finished, she couldn’t escape it. Putting her father’s name on it wouldn’t relieve her of its weight.

She climbed back down the scaffolding to the same concrete floor where she had drawn her first lines and stood and faced it. The plaster facial features mocked her, diminished her passion and her spirit. Whether or not it was cast in bronze and displayed, she knew she had betrayed her

gift. She understood she could be destroyed as easily as any other artist, that her talent wouldn’t save her. She had to get out of Russia. If only that were possible.

Like it had been last summer, the best and worst of her life. The summer of her engagement to Michael. The summer that Lily and Stephen became lovers. The summer when all of them could have escaped from Latvia and gone to Sweden, leaving behind once and for all Stalin’s terror and Hitler’s menacing war machine.

That summer began when Lily returned from Sweden to help Stephen and Rachel escape. They had known one another almost all of their lives, and over the years Lily had become her closest friend. Lily’s mother, Kitty, had been Rachel’s mother’s best friend growing up. Their friendship had continued into adulthood and after their marriages to very different kinds of men, Elizabeth to an artist and Kitty to a businessman. Lily and her family settled in Riga; but her mother chose to return to her parent’s home in the nearby village of Talsi. Growing up, she, Stephen and Lily had formed an odd trio. In the summer they went to a gypsy’s stables for riding lessons, to the lakes to sail and the beaches on the Baltic coast. In the winter they went to the mountains to ski, their families having built ski chalets on adjoining properties. Lily was always the tallest and had her father’s dark hair and olive skin while Rachel and Stephen were both fair. At thirteen, Stephen had finally passed Lily; Rachel remained the short one of the three. Stephen and Lily were athletic; they were both competitive riders and skiers. But she had her art, which fascinated Lily and made Stephen miserable as their father considered his athletic ability to be meaningless and doted on her. During adolescence, Lily had shown no interest in Stephen and she and Rachel had become close. But then Stephen suddenly grew out of his awkward youth, and became, with his red hair and muscular build, a striking young man. Just over six feet tall, even Rachel had to admit that he was very handsome, with their mother’s bone structure and their father’s eyes. Lily noticed, and before long it was she, Rachel, who was the outsider, watching her brother and Lily as they courted.

Then everything changed. Two years earlier, within days of Hitler’s invasion of Austria, Lily’s family moved to Sweden to escape what her father called THE INEVITABLE—Hitler’s invasion of Latvia and the other Baltic States. Kitty offered, at that time, to take Stephen and Rachel with them; with substantial bribes on both sides of the Baltic, she and Stephen could

have entered Sweden as Kitty’s “children”.

But their father forbid it. He insisted they had nothing to fear—the Baltic States would be protected by England, France, and the United States, which had won their independence as a result of World War I.

Her father was soon proved wrong. Stalin and Hitler had done the unthinkable—they had signed a non-aggression pact that opened the gates for Stalin’s army to invade and take control of the Baltic States.

So last summer, at great personal risk, Lily had defied her parents and come back again to get them out. She had brought along forged passports and documents for Stephen and Rachel; once more they could have left the country as Stephen and Rachel Kroger, Lily’s “brother and sister”. With Stalin’s NKVD now in control of Latvia, possession of those documents alone could have landed Lily in a Siberian prison camp for the rest of her life. Stalin had locked down the entire country—no one could get in or out without intense scrutiny. The dictator’s paranoia spread through Latvia like a virus and anyone seeking to leave was immediately suspected

of being a spy or an enemy of the Soviet State.

This time Rachel’s father had forbid her from leaving. Stephen, however, could do whatever he wanted. But Stephen wouldn’t leave without her.

The statue, her father insisted, would save them. Once it was completed, Avilov had promised to get all of them out of Latvia, if that’s what they

wanted. But he too maintained that they were perfectly safe in Latvia. The war in Europe would never come to the Soviet Union, Avilov asserted, a sentiment echoed by her father. “ You risk nothing by staying,” her father argued. “But if you try to leave with those phony papers, and they catch you, not even I can save you.”

Famous throughout Europe and the Soviet Union as a sculptor, her father’s talent had brought them great wealth and status. His logic seemed irrefutable.

Yet Lily had done so by pointing out that her father’s claim of “no risk” was based on one assumption: that Hitler’s pact with Stalin remained in force.

“If Hitler attacks Russia he’ll overrun the Baltic States in a few hours,” Lily said. “And your father will be at the top of the Gestapo’s list—as a Jew and as an artist who’s favored by Stalin and the Communist Party. The Gestapo will shoot all of you, or ship you off to concentration camps.”

The argument raged all last summer, as Lily and her father grew more and more hostile towards one another. And Rachel was caught in the middle.

Her mother told her to do whatever she believed was right. If only it had been that simple. Her father needed her talent to do the statue. He could never admit it, but they both knew the truth: he couldn’t do it without her. At fi fty one, he was physically stronger than most men twenty years younger, but at this point in his life, he lacked the mental stamina to complete such a gigantic project.

But Rachel knew that she could do it, and still continue her own work on the side.

The choice last summer had been all too clear: she could leave Latvia with Lily and Stephen, knowing her father wouldn’t be able to give Avilov what Stalin wanted. With someone other than Stalin that would mean the end of his patronage. But Stalin would confiscate everything her parents still possessed. As Jews they would be outcasts at best, left to rot in the backwaters

of Riga. Or worse, to avoid embarrassment, Stalin could punish them for their children’s sins and send them to Siberia or have them shot.

Rachel had made the only choice she could live with—she told Lily she wouldn’t leave her parents. Lily reacted by unleashing her pent up rage towards Rachel’s father onto Rachel herself. As Lily ranted, Rachel looked away and waited in silence for the storm to pass. “You’ve ruined your life, your brother’s life, and my life,” Lily charged.

Lily had failed to mention Rachel’s fiancé, Michael Orloff, whose proposal she had accepted in June. Michael. Slightly built, in her mind’s eye she saw his flaxen hair fall across his forehead and his grey eyes look out in mock seriousness from behind horn-rimmed glasses. During his summer visits he wore loose fitting cotton shirts, poplin pants and canvas shoes.

He didn’t look like the son of the Chief Justice of Latvia’s highest court. Educated in Swiss boarding schools, the Sorbonne, and Oxford, Michael Orloff met her on a visit to Talsi regarding her grandmother’s estate. She had refused to even consider the young Jewish men of her village, but she fell quickly for Michael’s boyish good looks and urbane manner. Here at last was someone whose background matched hers in exposure to the delights of Europe. “You’re a snob,” he chided her early on, in the idyllic days before the invasion.

Before the Russians came and confiscated their land and bank accounts, closed his law firm and sacked his father like a common bailiff. Stripped them of all that made them what they were. But when Michael told her in his roundabout way that he wanted her to leave, saying that if she left with Lily, he would be able to find his own way out and meet her, she had said,“It would be wrong.”

At the end of the summer Lily had returned disconsolate to Sweden, Stephen had gone back to finish his last year of high school, and she had lost herself in the statue. And in Michael, who visited each weekend from Riga. They were to be married there in a lavish ceremony on June 24th.

At first, it appeared her father was right. The Soviets left them alone. As for Hitler’s armies, it was forbidden to speak of them as a threat. In Stalin’s Latvia, it was a crime to even speculate that the worst could happen. From Sweden, though, Lily wrote that all of Europe soon expected a Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Michael, too, who belonged to an illegal Zionist group in Riga, warned that time was running out.

For Rachel, the past year became a race between her and the Nazis. She had worked at a frenzied pace to finish the statue so that Avilov could get her parents out of harm’s way. Now it was done. A month from now, Lily was going to come back one last time for Stephen, and in early July, within weeks of their wedding, she and Michael would find their own way out of the country, using Michael’s Zionist connections.

But an unforseen event had already overtaken their plans—Stephen was no longer living in Latvia but had been “invited” to join the Soviet national soccer team in Moscow. At seventeen, he was one of the best athletes in Latvia; it was at soccer that he truly excelled, because of his speed and agility.

The Russians took notice. Scouts from Moscow suddenly appeared at Stephen’s games, an unheard-of event in their tiny village. A few weeks later a letter arrived “inviting” Stephen to join the national team in Moscow. To refuse was unthinkable. Stephen had left for Moscow in late September and was now living in a dormitory complex for the Soviet’s best young athletes. Everything was provided for them, including their own high school.

For now, he was safe. For now, they all were safe. But for how long? Officially, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were, if not allies, at least non-combatants. But in their village of Talsi, where townspeople privately spoke German, there was a sense that it was only a matter of time, perhaps only days or weeks before the Russians were driven out.

When that happened, Rachel knew, the Gentile majority of the townspeople, most of whom thought of themselves as of German origin, would turn on the Jewish community and direct the Gestapo to Jewish homes and businesses. The Jewish community had never been embraced by native Latvians; they were tolerated, but that was all.

For now, all they could do was wait for Avilov to relocate her parents—to Moscow or to a place even further east. Avilov had spoken of a city called Tashkent, located in the desert on the other side of the globe. Accordingto Avilov, the Kremlin bosses were already drawing up plans to move all of Russia’s industry far to the east in the event of war. Yet, because it was forbidden to even suggest that there was a danger of war with Hitler, even Avilov was constrained to avoid appearing as though there was any real urgency in moving them. So they had to wait for the bureaucracy to give “official” approval for their leaving Latvia. Until it was granted, they couldn’t so much as pack a box.

Rachel glanced again at the statue. Two monsters, both insane in their hatred of Jews. Stalin had come to believe that all the Jewish doctors in Russia were plotting to kill him. He viewed Zionism as a conspiracy to destroy the Soviet empire. Hitler was determined to destroy all of European Jewry. She knew she ought to leave tonight. Call Michael and get out of Latvia and the Soviet Union within the next few days. But she couldn’t leave until her parents were safe.

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