Family heirloom

[Click here to listen to an audio recording of this story. (Read by me, and not a professional voice artist, unfortunately!)]

*

My grandmother’s house was just as I remembered it. The crunch of gravel on the front path, the lion’s head knocker, the smell of beeswax, and the umbrella stand in the corner of the hall.

When I was a child the umbrella stand fascinated me. It had an off-white circular base; ivory, Oma explained – like the piano keys. The umbrella bin was shaped like an umbrella itself; inverted and partially opened. Its spines were ivory too, and stretched between, forming the fabric of the umbrella, was a beige-coloured translucent material that reminded me of the hide on my bongo drums.

Whenever Heike and I stayed with Oma the umbrella stand was our touchstone. One of us would stand next to it, close our eyes and count to a hundred while the other hid. It was our hiding place for the sweets we smuggled in for midnight feasts. As teenagers it was where we stashed our make-up.

It didn’t take long to clear the house. I got the umbrella stand and the contents of Oma’s bureau. Sorting through her papers the next day, one handwritten letter caught my eye.

June 14th 1943

Sehr geehrte Fräulein Schwartz,

Please accept my deepest sympathies. Your late father’s patronage of our work has helped to make this country great. Your own generous donation from your father’s estate will allow us to continue our research for many years to come. Please accept this small token of my appreciation: an umbrella stand, fashioned entirely from waste materials.

Yours,

Joseph Mengele

 

(C) Helen Lewis 2010

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