The old man sat at the table, watching the couples dance. He stared into his glass of Schnapps. The taste did nothing for him. Nothing did anything for him anymore. He wasn’t sure why he’d come. The lecturers and professors got younger every year. He felt they only invited him because they knew he had nowhere else to go. He doubted they’d even notice if he slipped away before the bells rang out. He wondered if many of them even knew how to waltz anymore.
He listened to the babble of conversation around him as the seconds counted down to midnight, to the beginning of a new decade. Goodbye to the Fuddy Duddy Fifties, here come the Swinging Sixties. There was heady optimism in the air, the likes of which he hadn’t seen since the roaring Twenties.
He remembered being at a dance like this when he met Greta. Through the fog of time, he watched her reappear. Her dress swayed as she turned to whisper something conspiratorially to her friend as she passed him. He raised his glass to her in a cheeky salute and she giggled some more.
He remembered that New Year like it was yesterday. He had kissed Greta for the first time that night as cries of “Prosit Neujahr” filled the air with everyone hoping things were going to get better. The signs weren’t good though. The Nazi party had won the election and an Austrian, Adolf Hitler was the new Chancellor of Germany. The Austrian Nazis were becoming more emboldened. Talk of reunification, of Anschluss, was becoming more prevalent. The Wall Street Crash had sent shock waves around the world and the crippling debts from the Kaiser’s war were still sucking the life out of the old Empires. The Treaty of Versailles just heaped misery and humiliation on the German people. When Klaus kissed Greta however, he had thought that those things couldn’t touch them.
The bells had just rung out to announce the New Year and as the band prepared to play the Blue Danube, Greta walked up to him and asked him to dance. They had waltzed their way into 1933 and when she kissed him, she waltzed her way into his heart.
He stared into the crowd as the reminiscences flickered and faded behind his eyes. He saw the band preparing themselves on the stage, getting ready to lead the crowd, once the bells rang, in the traditional New Year dance, the Blue Danube waltz. He watched a girl approach his table. She moved just like Greta. Her green dress sparkled, flaring out the same way Greta’s had that night a lifetime ago. The walk, the sway of the hips, even the hair looked the same.
“Greta?” His voice was little more than a whisper. But it couldn’t be. This girl was young, far too young, she was as young as Greta had been then.
“Hello Klaus,” she smiled.
He looked at her. His hand shook a little as he put the empty glass back on the table.
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
He stared at her. Her green eyes sparkled, pinpoints of light reflected from the candles on the tables. He shook his head slowly.
“I thought I did, just for a second. You look so like her.” He paused. “Like she was the last time I saw her.”
Her fingers slipped into his hand, squeezing it as she slid into the empty chair beside him.
“I was so much older than her. Than Greta. My wife. I met her at a New Year’s ball just like this, just as the fireworks went off and the bells rang out. I never could understand what she’d seen in me. I was an old man, already in my forties and she was only a slip of a thing.”
He smiled, looking off into the distance.
“She’d always giggle and tell me that It was my artistic temperament that attracted her every time I pressed her.”
He paused, looked at her, then continued.
“And soon it didn’t matter that I was so much older. When our little girl, Gretchen came along, my world was complete. I’d risen to become Professor of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and was well respected for my fatherly manner with the students. Gretchen was the light of my life. When I hurried home from work, Gretchen was always standing at the gate. She’d see the tram trundle past and knew Daddy was going to walk around the corner from the tram stop at any second. Every day when I appeared, she would scream and clap her hands with joy.”
The memories stirred inside him. Memories kept locked up were slowly awakening. Why he was revealing them to this stranger, he didn’t know.
He remembered how he tried to keep the fear out of his face as he scooped his little girl into his arms. He knew another war was coming. The Annexation of Austria by Germany had happened without a shot being fired. The Führer’s homeland was part of a greater Germany now. The men in the brown shirts frightened him. It was all such a mess. Politics confused him. He just wanted to teach and to paint.
He’d seen Picasso’s painting Guernica at the Paris World’s Fair. It had taken his breath away and brought tears to his eyes when he read about the bombing. How the German planes had bombed the northern Spanish town of Guernica, a place with no strategic military value just to give the new Luftwaffe some target practice. It caused a chill in his heart at what his new countrymen would do next. He looked at the huge painting, at the suffering wrenched in violence and chaos, depicted in stark black and white and thought about how fragile human life was. How fragile his Greta and Gretchen were.
Greta looked up from her sewing. She held up Gretchen’s coat for him to see. The yellow star was plainly visible.
“This is so wrong, Klaus.”
He could see the tears threatening to engulf her.
“I know,” he cried softly as he moved to kneel beside her.
He’d never really given much thought to religion. True, he’d been raised a Catholic but he’d lapsed before he’d even been at Art School for a month. He remembered announcing to his parents that Neitzsche had already declared ‘God is Dead’ but their generation just refused to believe it. He’d wave Greta and Gretchen off every Saturday and welcome them home again afterwards and eat what Greta put in front of him but religion wasn’t a part of his life.
With the annexation of Austria into a greater Germany, the Nuremberg laws passed in Germany in 1935 now applied. This declared that a marriage between a Jew and a German blooded person was illegal. His wife and daughter were now second class citizens. He remembered the tears in his daughter’s eyes when they were told they were dirty Jews and were not allowed in the local swimming pool anymore.
They finally came for them one night. He remembered the banging on the door and the pounding of footsteps on the stairs. By the time he’d got out of bed and put his dressing gown on, the soldiers were in their bedrooms.
The captain was a tall blonde man with high cheekbones and thin lips. The old man remembered how the two lightning bolts on his cap badge reflected the dim flicker from the bedside lamp.
“Your wife and daughter are being evacuated for their own safety.”
“But why?” he had protested. “Safety from whom? Evacuated to where?”
“All Jews are being relocated to the model ghetto at Theresienstadt in Bohemia.”
He made to move past the man and try to calm his daughter’s cries but was stopped by the slam of a rifle butt into his stomach.
“I’m sure we can find room on the truck for you too, Jew lover.”
He groaned as the soldier who had felled him gave him one further kick in the kidneys. He watched from the floor as his daughter was scooped up by a soldier in a grey uniform and carried out into the night. His wife followed, wrapping a shawl around her nightdress.
“I never saw them again.”
He looked into the eyes of the woman who looked so much like Greta as she held his hand.
“I travelled to Bohemia to look for them but there were soldiers everywhere. The grey of the Wehrmacht wherever I looked. I eventually discovered that Theresienstadt was just outside Prague but I was stopped on the outskirts. Large signs declared it was a Quarantine area and no one was to be admitted. Soldiers with great big German shepherd dogs on chains for leads patrolled a high wire fence that surrounded the area.”
His eyes misted over and he took another drink of his schnapps. The woman watched his hand tremble as he placed the glass back on the table.
“When the war was over, I was told they had died. Gretchen died of malnutrition in the winter of Forty-Two and Greta a few months later. They said Greta died of a broken heart.”
The sounds of the party all around them seemed muffled. It was as if they were in a world of their own. The woman signalled the waiter for another schnapps.
“We should have left when we had the chance. We could have emigrated but it seemed so drastic. To up and leave everything behind. It would have cost us all our savings to pay the Reich Flight Tax. They stole everything from anyone leaving the country. And where would we have gone? We were Austrians. Austria was our home.”
The woman leant forward, her voice barely above a whisper.
“If you could go back and change something. Is that what you would do? Leave Austria when you had the chance?”
“God No,” the man roared with laughter before suddenly coughing, choking on his schnapps. When he had composed himself again, he apologised as the woman looked askance at him.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “No, I had the chance to do something long before then.”
He leant back in his chair.
“I didn’t realise it was him until much later. It was after the Degenerate Art Exhibition the Nazis curated. The one where they exhibited all the modern art they had removed from the German galleries. The Picassos, Klees, Mondrians, Chagalls, and Kandinskys, holding them up as incompetents, cheats, and madmen. They railed against modern art, calling it the ‘degenerate’ product of Jews and Bolsheviks and a threat to the German national identity. I read somewhere that he’d been rejected from art school. The failed painter who’d turned to politics.”
He remembered going into the archives at the Academy of Fine Arts and searching the yellowing pieces of paper and there it was. With trembling hands, he’d run his finger down the list of applicants who’d come to the Academy in 1907 to produce a sample drawing. He recognised his own writing as he read the notes. The memories came flooding back.
He’d only been teaching at the Academy in Vienna a few months. The autumn mists coming off the Danube swirled around the streets. He had his scarf wrapped around his face and with his head down, had bumped into Christian Griepenkerl, the Professor of the Acadamy as he entered the courtyard.
“Ah, Klaus,” Herr Griepenkerl had greeted him. “I’m just going up to review the applicants for next year’s entry. They’ve all been provisionally admitted to prepare a sample drawing. Would you care to join me? You can help take notes.”
Klaus had nodded eagerly. He was keen to learn as much as possible of the workings of the Academy. He followed the older man as they made their way up the main staircase. Klaus noticed that Herr Griepenkerl still had a bit of cheese from his morning’s breakfast stuck in his grey beard.
“Have you seen Egon Schiele is making a fuss again? He and his cronies are threatening to leave because of my ‘antiquated views’. They are threatening to set up their own art group. The ‘New Art Group’, whatever that means.” The professor shook his head as they stood outside the studio. “I don’t know, Klaus. Apparently, I’m an ultra-conservative.”
They entered the room and Klaus saw four young men standing nervously behind their easels. Herr Griepenkerl introduced himself and together, they approached the first man. He was very shy and spoke so quietly, Griepenkerl had to ask him to repeat himself several times. It transpired he had come here against his dying Father’s wishes to become an artist rather than a civil servant.
The two men looked at the sample drawing. Klaus could tell it wasn’t very good. Herr Griepenkerl sighed and looked at the young man, then back at the drawing. Klaus watched, pencil posed. Herr Griepenkerl turned away and walked out of earshot. He whispered to Klaus that the sample drawing was unsatisfactory. There were too few heads.
Klaus nodded and wrote “Hitler, Adolf - Not admitted.”
The old man leant back in his chair, his hands spread wide apart.
“Perhaps if we’d let him in, he’d have been happier as a painter than a politician. I’ve asked myself that question many many times.”
“Perhaps,” the woman smiled. “Would you like to find out?”
The man laughed.
“Is this a joke? Something you crazy young people have dreamt up now?”
“No. It’s no joke.”
She paused and looked around the room then back at him.
“It’s called a reboot. A chance for you to go back and change something from your past. See if you can get more happiness than you had in this life."
She squeezed his hand tighter.
“There’s a risk though that the change you make may result in other changes. Ones you can’t foresee. If you go back to 1907 and let him into the Acadamy, you won’t remember anything that has happened afterwards. You’ll forget Greta until you hopefully meet her again. Any residual memories will be like deja vu.”
Klaus smiled and spread his hands.
“I’m an old man, I won’t live much longer anyway. To even be offered a chance of seeing Greta and Gretchen again, even if only for a few years is worth the risk.”
As the band settled themselves on stage and the crowd began the countdown to welcome in 1933, Klaus watched the attractive young woman walk past, whispering something to her friend as she glanced sideways at him.
The bells rang out and cries of “Prosit Neujahr” filled the air.
“Would you like to dance?”
The girl in the green dress took his hand and led him onto the floor for the New Year Waltz to the ‘Blue Danube.’ As they swirled around the dance floor, Klaus hoped that 1933 would be better. He couldn’t believe his old student, Adolf Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany. He’d had high hopes that he would make it as an artist, but when he returned from the War, Hitler had felt betrayed by the ‘November Criminals’ as he called them and how the victorious Allies were bleeding Germany dry. He feared for the future with the Nazi brownshirts in charge but then Greta pressed her lips to his mouth and all thoughts of his old pupil with the silly moustache evaporated.