CHAPTER 30

Premonition

Martha became consumed with Boris. Her French lover, Armand Berard, upon finding himself consigned to the background, grieved. Diels too receded, though he remained a frequent companion.

Early in January, Boris arranged a tryst with Martha that yielded one of the most unusual romantic encounters she had ever experienced, though she had no advance warning of what was to occur other than Boris’s plea that she wear his favorite dress—gold silk, off the shoulders, deep and revealing neckline, close fitted at the waist. She added a necklace of amber and a corsage that Boris had provided, of gardenias.

Fritz, the butler, greeted Boris at the front door, but before he could announce the Russian’s presence, Boris went bounding up the stairway to the main floor. Fritz followed. Martha was just then walking along the hall toward the stairs, as she wrote in a detailed recollection of the evening. Upon seeing her, Boris dropped to one knee.

“Oh my darling!” he said, in English. Then, in German: “You look wonderful.”

She was delighted and mildly embarrassed. Fritz grinned. Boris led her out to his Ford—the top raised, mercifully, against the cold—and drove them to Horcher’s restaurant on Lutherstrasse, a few blocks south of the Tiergarten. It was one of Berlin’s finest restaurants, specializing in game, and was said to be Göring’s favorite place to dine. It was identified also, in a 1929 short story by then-popular writer Gina Kaus, as the place to go if your goal was seduction. You could be seated on one of its leather banquettes and a few tables over, there would be Göring, resplendent in his uniform of the moment. In another time there might have been famous writers, artists, and musicians and prominent Jewish financiers and scientists, but by this point most had fled or else had found themselves suddenly isolated in circumstances that did not permit costly nights on the town. The restaurant endured, however, as if unmindful that anything had changed in the world outside.

Boris had reserved a private room, where he and Martha dined lavishly on smoked salmon, caviar, turtle soup, and chicken in the style coming to be known as “Kievsky.” For dessert they had brandied Bavarian cream. They drank champagne and vodka. Martha loved the food, the drink, the lofty setting, but was perplexed. “Why all this, Boris?” she asked him. “What are we celebrating?”

In answer he gave only a smile. After dinner, they drove north and turned onto Tiergartenstrasse as if heading for the Dodds’ house, but instead of stopping there, Boris kept driving. They tooled along the darkly forested boundary of the park until they reached the Brandenburg Gate and Unter den Linden, its two-hundred-foot width clogged with automobiles whose headlights transformed it into a sluiceway of platinum. One block east of the gate, Boris pulled to a stop at the Soviet embassy, at Unter den Linden 7. He led Martha into the building and along several corridors, then up a flight of stairs, until they stood before an unmarked door.

He smiled and opened the door, then stepped aside to let her pass. He switched on a table lamp and lit two red candles. The room reminded her at first of a student’s residence in a dormitory, though Boris had done what he could to make it something more. She saw a straight-backed chair, two armchairs, and a bed. Over the pillow he had spread an embroidered cloth that he identified as coming from the Caucasus. A samovar for making tea occupied a table by the window.

In one corner of the room, in a bookcase, Martha found a collection of photographs of Vladimir Lenin centered around a single large portrait that showed him in a manner Martha had not seen before, like a friend captured in a snapshot, not the stern-visaged Lenin of Soviet propaganda. Here too lay a number of pamphlets in Russian, one with the scintillating title, as translated by Boris, “Workers and Peasant Inspection Teams.” Boris identified all this as his “Lenin corner,” his Soviet equivalent of the religious images that Orthodox Russians traditionally hung high in one corner of a room. “My people, as you may have read in the Russian novels you love, used to have, and still have, icon corners,” he told her. “But I am a modern Russian, a communist!”

In another corner she found a second shrine, but the centerpiece of this one, she saw, was herself. Boris called it his “Martha corner.” A photograph of her stood on a small table, shimmying in the red flicker of one of Boris’s candles. He also had set out several of her letters and more photographs. An enthusiastic amateur photographer, he had taken many pictures during their travels around Berlin. There were keepsakes as well—a linen handkerchief she had given him and that stalk of wild mint from their picnic in September 1933, now dried but still exuding a faint tang. And here too was the carved wooden statue of a nun that she had sent to him as a reply to his three “see no evil” monkeys—except Boris had accessorized the nun by adding a tiny halo fashioned out of fine gold wire.

More recently he had added pinecones and freshly cut evergreen boughs to his Martha shrine, and these filled the room with the scent of forest. He included these, he told her, to symbolize that his love for her was “ever green.”

“My God, Boris,” she laughed, “you are a romantic! Is this a proper thing for a tough communist like you to do?”

Next to Lenin, he told her, “I love you most.” He kissed her bare shoulder and suddenly became very serious. “But in case you don’t understand yet,” he said, “my party and country must always come first.”

The sudden shift, the look on his face—again Martha laughed. She told Boris she understood. “My father thinks of Thomas Jefferson almost the way you do about Lenin,” she said.

They were getting cozy, when suddenly, quietly, the door opened and in stepped a blond girl whom Martha guessed to be about nine years old. She knew at once this had to be Boris’s daughter. Her eyes were just like her father’s—“extraordinary, luminous eyes,” Martha wrote—though in most other ways she seemed very unlike him. Her face was plain and she lacked her father’s irrepressible mirth. She looked somber. Boris rose and went to her.

“Why is it so dark in here?” his daughter said. “I don’t like it.”

She spoke in Russian, with Boris translating. Martha suspected the girl knew German, given her schooling in Berlin, but that she spoke Russian now out of petulance.

Boris turned on an overhead light, a bare bulb. Its harsh glow instantly dispersed the romantic air he had managed to create with his candles and shrines. He told his daughter to shake Martha’s hand, and the girl did so, though with obvious reluctance. Martha found the girl’s hostility unpleasant but understandable.

The girl asked her, in Russian, “Why are you so dressed up?”

Boris explained that this was the Martha he had told her about. She was dressed so nicely, he said, because this was her very first visit to the Soviet embassy and thus a special occasion.

The girl appraised Martha. A hint of a smile appeared. “She is very pretty,” the girl said. “But she’s too thin.”

Boris explained that nonetheless Martha was healthy.

He checked his watch. The time was almost ten o’clock. He sat his daughter in his lap, held her close, and gently ran his hand through her hair. He and Martha spoke of trivial matters as the girl stared at Martha. After a few moments Boris stopped stroking her hair and gave her a hug, his signal that it was time for her to go to bed. She curtsied and in grudging, quiet German said, “Auf Wiedersehen, Fräulein Marta.”

Boris took the girl’s hand and walked her from the room.

In his absence, Martha gave his quarters a closer examination, and she continued doing so after his return. Now and then she glanced in his direction.

“Lenin was very human,” he said, smiling. “He would have understood your corner.”

They lay on the bed and held each other. He told her of his life—how his father had abandoned his family, and how at sixteen he had joined the Red Guard. “I want my daughter to have an easier life,” he said. He wanted the same for his country. “We’ve had nothing but tyranny, war, revolution, terror, civil war, starvation. If we aren’t attacked again, we may have a chance to build something new and unique in human history. You understand?”

At times as he told his story tears slipped down his cheeks. She was used to it now. He told her his dreams for the future.

“Then he held me close to his body,” she wrote. “From below his collarbone to his navel, his honey-colored hair covered him, as soft as down.… Truly, it was beautiful to me, and gave me a deep feeling of warmth, comfort and closeness.”

As the evening came to an end, he made tea and poured it into the traditional cup—clear glass in a metal frame.

“Now, my darling,” he said, “in the last few hours you have had a small taste of a Russian evening.”

“HOW COULD I TELL HIM,” she wrote later, “that it was one of the strangest evenings I had ever spent in my life?” A sense of foreboding tempered her enjoyment. She wondered whether Boris, by becoming so involved with her—establishing his Martha corner in the embassy and daring to bring her to his private quarters—had somehow transgressed an unwritten prohibition. She sensed that some “malevolent eye” had taken note. “It was,” she recalled, “as if a dark wind had entered the room.”

Late that night Boris drove her home.

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