The Book of Lost Names Page 1

Author: Kristin Harmel

Genres: Historical

Chapter One

May 2005

It’s a Saturday morning, and I’m midway through my shift at the Winter Park Public Library when I see it.

The book I last laid eyes on more than six decades ago.

The book I believed had vanished forever.

The book that meant everything to me.

It’s staring out at me from a photograph in the New York Times, which someone has left open on the returns desk. The world goes silent as I reach for the newspaper, my hand trembling nearly as much as it did the last time I held the book. “It can’t be,” I whisper.

I gaze at the picture. A man in his seventies looks back at me, his snowy hair sparse and wispy, his eyes froglike behind bulbous glasses.

“Sixty Years After End of World War II, German Librarian Seeks to Reunite Looted Books with Rightful Owners,” declares the headline, and I want to cry out to the man in the image that I am the rightful owner of the book he’s holding, the faded leather-bound volume with the peeling bottom right corner and the gilded spine bearing the title Epitres et Evangiles. It belongs to me—and to Rémy, a man who died long ago, a man I vowed after the war to think of no more.

But he’s been in my thoughts this week anyhow, despite my best efforts. Tomorrow, the eighth of May, the world will celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. It’s impossible, with all the young newscasters speaking solemnly of the war as if they could conceivably understand it, not to think of Rémy, not to think of the time we spent together then, not to think of the people we saved and the way it all ended. Though my son tells me I’m blessed to have such a sharp mind in my old age, like many blessings this one is mixed.

Most days, I just long to forget.

I blink away the uninvited thoughts of Rémy and return my attention to the article. The man in the photo is Otto Kühn, a librarian from the Zentral-und Landesbibliothek in Berlin, who has made it his life’s mission to return books looted by the Nazis. There are apparently more than a million such books in his library’s collection alone, but the one he’s holding in the photo—my book—is the one he says keeps him up at night.

“This religious text,” Kühn has told the reporter, “is my favorite among the many mysteries that occupy our shelves. Published in Paris in 1732, it’s a very rare book, but that’s not what makes it extraordinary. It is unique because within it, we find an intriguing puzzle: some sort of code. To whom did it belong? What does the code mean? How did the Germans come to possess it during the war? These are the questions that haunt me.”

I feel tears in my eyes, tears that have no place there. I wipe them away, angry at myself for still being so emotional after all these years. “How nice it must be,” I say softly to Kühn’s picture, “to be haunted by questions rather than ghosts.”

“Um, Mrs. Abrams? Are you talking to that newspaper?”

I’m jolted out of the fog of my memory by the voice of Jenny Fish, the library’s assistant manager. She’s the type who complains about everything—and who seems to enjoy suggesting at every opportunity that since I’m eighty-six, I might want to think about retiring soon. She is always eyeing me suspiciously, as if she simply cannot believe that at my age, I’d still want to work here.

She doesn’t understand what it means to love books so passionately that you would die without them, that you would simply stop breathing, stop existing. It is quite beyond me, in fact, why she became a librarian in the first place.

“Yes, Jenny, indeed I am,” I reply, without looking up.

“Yes, well, you probably shouldn’t be doing that in front of library guests.” She says it without a trace of irony. “They might think you’re senile.” She does not have a sense of humor.

“Thank you, Jenny. Your advice is always so very helpful.”

She nods solemnly. It is also apparently beyond her comprehension that someone who looks like me—small, white-haired, grandmotherly—is capable of sarcasm.

Today, though, I have no time for her. All I can think about is the book. The book that held so many secrets. The book that was taken from me before I could learn whether it contained the one answer I so desperately needed.

And now, a mere plane flight away, there’s a man who holds the key to unlocking everything.

“Do I dare?” I murmur to the photo of Otto Kühn. I respond to my own question before doubt can creep in. “I must. I owe it to the children.”

“Mrs. Abrams?” It’s Jenny again, addressing me by my surname, though I’ve told her a thousand times to call me Eva, just as she addresses the younger librarians by their given names. But alas, I am nothing to her but an old lady. One’s reward for marching through the decades is a gradual process of erasure.

“Yes, Jenny?” I finally look up at her.

“Do you need to go home?” I suspect she says it with the expectation that I’ll decline. She’s smirking a bit, certain that she has asserted her superiority. “Perhaps gather yourself?”

So it gives me great pleasure to look her right in the eye, smile, and say, “Yes, Jenny, thank you ever so much. I think I’ll do just that.”

I grab the newspaper and go.

* * *

As soon as I arrive at my house—a cozy bungalow just a five-minute walk from the library—I log on to my computer.

Yes, I have a computer. And yes, I know how to use it. My son, Ben, has a bad habit of pronouncing computer terms slowly in my presence—in-ter-net and e-mail-ing—as if the whole concept of technology might be too much for me. I suppose I can’t blame him, not entirely. By the time Ben was born, the war was eight years past, and I’d left France—and the person I used to be—far behind. Ben knew me only as a librarian and housewife who sometimes stumbled over her English.

Somewhere along the way, he got the mistaken idea that I am a simple person. What would he say if he knew the truth?

It’s my fault for never telling him, for failing to correct the error. But when you grow comfortable hiding within a protective shell, it’s harder than one might expect to stand up and say, “Actually, folks, this is who I am.”

Perhaps I also feared that Ben’s father, my husband, Louis, would leave me if he realized I was something other than the person I wanted him to see. He left me anyhow—pancreatic cancer a decade ago—and though I’ve missed his companionship, I’ve also had the strange realization that I probably could have done without him much sooner.

I go to the website for Delta—habit, I suppose, since Louis traveled often for business and was part of the airline’s frequent-flier program. The prices are exorbitant, but I have plenty stashed away in savings. It’s just before noon, and there’s a flight that leaves three hours from now, and another leaving at 9:35 tonight, connecting in Amsterdam tomorrow, and landing in Berlin at 3:40 p.m. I click immediately and book the latter. There is something poetic about knowing I will arrive in Berlin sixty years to the day after the Germans signed an unconditional surrender to the Allies in that very city.

A shiver runs through me, and I don’t know whether it’s fear or excitement.

I must pack, but before that, I’ll need to call Ben. He won’t understand, but perhaps it’s finally time for him to learn that his mother isn’t the person he always believed her to be.

Chapter Two

July 1942

The sky above the Sorbonne Library in Paris’s fifth arrondissement was gray and pregnant with rain, the air heavy and thick. Eva Traube stood just outside the main doors, cursing the humidity. She knew, even without consulting a mirror, that her dark, shoulder-length hair had already doubled in volume, making her look like a mushroom. Not that it made a difference; the only thing anyone would notice was the six-pointed yellow star stitched onto the left side of her cardigan. It erased all the other parts of her that mattered—her identity as a daughter, a friend, an Anglophile working toward her doctorate in English literature.

To so many in Paris now, she was nothing but a Jew.

She shuddered, feeling a sudden chill. The sky appeared foreboding, as if it knew something she didn’t. The shadows cast by the gathering clouds seemed to be the physical embodiment of the darkness that had fallen over the city itself.

Courage, her father would say, his French still rough around the edges, with the vestiges of a Polish accent. Cheer up. The Germans can only bother us if we let them.