THE DRAGONTAIL BUTTONHOLE: CHAPTER ONE
March 15, 1939
Willy Kohut, breathing hard, stepped gratefully into the warmth of his store at 19 Masná Street. He stamped his feet and brushed off the snow. Thank God, I’m still in one piece.
Unbuttoning his galoshes, he hung up his homburg and overcoat and looked around. The cutting tabletop glistened like a mirror, the club armchairs were in their proper places, and the bolts of English suiting stacked along the wall were perfectly aligned. He mopped the sweat off his face. Looks fine, but what’s going to happen now?
An hour earlier, at nine, he had reached the Dresdner Bank to find its regular customers, many of whom he knew well enough to nod to, fighting like wild dogs, pushing and punching to get to the tellers’ counters. Arguing and elbowing his way through the crowd, Willy had managed to get to the front and withdraw 70,000 korun from his account. Back outside on the bank’s marble steps, clutching his briefcase, he’d stopped short. So it’s true. Not more than a few hundred meters away, columns of German soldiers, armored cars, growling half-tracks and motorcycles were moving steadily along Na Přikopĕ Street.
Panicked, he’d dodged his way home through the back streets and alleys of the Old Town district, his mind focused on what to do next. Money in the safe, hunker down with the family, wait.
* * *
Three hours earlier, in the middle of Willy’s standard breakfast of coffee, hot rolls and Duerr’s English marmalade, Rádio Praha had announced the devastating news: German army units had crossed the Czech border and were driving unopposed toward the capital. Advance Panzer units were expected in Prague by mid-morning.
Astonished and cursing himself for attempting to wait out Czechoslovakia’s repeated crises over the previous months, Willy had woken Sophie and sat on their bed, doing his best to wind down her panic with kisses and reassuring words. Afterwards, as he shaved and dressed, the implications of the radio announcement whirled through his head. With the Nazis taking control of the country, his half-formed plans to sell his store, Anglotex, and leave Czechoslovakia hung by a thread. If recent history was anything to go by, everything would change for Jewish families like his. How bad that change would be in Prague or how it would happen was anyone’s guess.
While Pavel slept in his crib, Willy and Sophie gathered the domestics around the dining table. Elena the maid and Nanny Ludmila were uneducated village girls who shared a rented room in the city during the week. Elise, the part-time cook, usually arrived at eleven. Willy’s report of the radio broadcast was met by the women with shocked silence, tears, fearful looks, and questions: “What shall we do?” “What will happen to us?” “Please, can we go home?”
“We have two hours before the Germans get to Prague.” Willy tried to convey calm and authority, though he could not stop an uncontrollable jiggle of his right foot. “Elena, you will go to Zoryk’s grocery on Zelezná Street. Buy canned food and anything else you think we might need for the next two weeks. Take Pavel’s perambulator and fill it up. Madám will give you the money. Everyone else stays indoors, especially Pavel.”
“Elena shouldn’t go out by herself,” countermanded Sophie, her eyes flashing. The soft skin of her cheeks flushed. “The girl is only eighteen. Who knows what the streets are like? Zoryk’s grocery opens at half past eight. I’m the one to go. I’ll decide what we need. Elena and Ludmila will look after everything here until the master’s cousins arrive.”
Willy looked at Sophie in surprise. “Good for you, strudel.” She was being more forceful than he was used to, unexpectedly pragmatic for the decorative affectionate woman who shared their bourgeois life of servants, fashions, and Prague’s social whirl. He slid his hand over hers and gave her a complimentary, admiring smile before rising from his chair. “That’s settled, then. As well as food, we need a reserve of money ... for ... .” He shrugged. “For ... I don’t know what eventualities. I’ll go to the Dresdner Bank and be there for when it opens. Janko and Laci are supposed to be here at nine. Tell them to keep the store closed.”
A few minutes later, bundled up in warm clothes and furs, Willy and Sophie stood outside the lobby of their apartment building. Fine snowflakes billowed into their faces. “For God’s sake, make sure you’re back before ten,” said Willy, pulling back the soft fox fur of Sophie’s hood to kiss her cold cheek. He wanted to appear calm but his pulse was racing. His neck and shoulder muscles tensed as tight as ropes.
* * *
Comforted at returning from the bank without incident, Willy lay his briefcase on the cutting table, dried off his spectacles, and frowned. He recognized the spicy stink of Laci’s Memphis brand cigarettes. Only customers could smoke in his store, and there were no customers. “Laci,” he shouted, “you damned Slovak chimney, where the hell are you?”
As he picked up his briefcase, he noticed wet footprints on the carpet. Laci again
. He had left his cousins strict instructions to keep Anglotex closed. “Laci for God’s sake,” he shouted again, “get your backside in here!” The lazybones potz
should have been unpacking the latest shipment in the yard instead of smoking in the store.
Employing cousins in the family business had its drawbacks, especially if they were only a couple of years younger than the 26-year old cousin-boss. Hefty, emotional Laci and thin indecisive Janko were good-hearted fellows, but they had recently shown some reluctance to obey orders. A year working in Prague had changed the once respectful town Slovaks into habitués of pubs, chasers of women, and frequent requesters of cash advances.
Willy strode past the stacked shelves, heading for the office, running fingers along the bolts of cheviot tweed, cashmere, worsted, and herringbone. He loved the feel of finely spun British wool: his merchandise.
Hearing clicking footsteps in the apartment above, he smiled; that must be Sophie back from Zoryk’s. He wondered if she had experienced any trouble getting the supplies—probably the same kind of unpleasantness he had encountered at the bank: people panicking, pushing and shoving to get what they needed. His heart jolted. God, I hope she didn’t see any damned Nazis.
Hearing the radio playing in his back office, Willy’s anger surged. Laci again!
He swung the office door open, ready to blast his cousin with a mouthful of curses.
It took a few seconds to absorb what he saw: cigarette haze, filing cabinet drawers awry, and half-opened files strewn across the floor.
A shorthaired, lanky man in feldgrau
uniform, a swastika band on his left upper arm, sat behind Willy’s desk. Two heavily built German soldiers in steel helmets stood beside him, taciturn and menacing. They carried machine pistols. A Czech voice burbled on the shelf radio, but Willy was not listening. Like horses breaking loose from a burning shed, his thoughts raced in all directions. Here already? What the hell? Why? Have they been up to the apartment?
“You are Kohut?” asked the officer in a calm but grating voice.
Willy nodded, unable to say anything. But he could not help appreciating the precise, form-fitting cut of the man’s uniform. He was in the cloth trade, after all.
“I sent your employees upstairs to be with your wife. They said you speak German. Das ist ganz gut
. We won’t have to waste time.”
Willy’s skin turned cold, his stomach churned. He took a deep breath. What do the bastards want?
He did not dare ask about Sophie, not yet. He paused for a moment to clear his head. In excellent German, he replied, “I am Kohut, Wilhelm. Those employees, they are my cousins. We are a family business. Please, what is happening here?”
“Hauptmann Kreutz, Section two, Gestapo,” said the officer with a crisp nod. “The German army is in Prague to protect the civilian population from unrest. From now on, I ask the questions and you give me answers. Understand?”
Willy tried to bottle up his fear. They’re looking for something, but what?
Seconds passed as his mouth turned dry and his hands began to shake. For God’s sake, don’t show the bastards you’re afraid
. He wetted his lips and swallowed. “I’m a respectable Prague businessman. I’ve done nothing wrong. What are you looking for in my files?”
The officer checked the document in front of him with a forefinger. Smoke curled from the cigarette tucked into the corner of his mouth, making him blink. “You are a Jew, ja? A Slovak from Košice in the south, age twenty-six, married to a Hungarian woman with an eighteen-month-old male child. You have owned this store, Anglotex, since one year? Correct?“
Willy blinked assent, his pulse galloping. How do they know all this?
The pale, sharp-featured officer noted down something with a silver pencil. “You sell English fabrics for making men’s suits and overcoats? Again, correct?”
A wave of outrage destroyed Willy’s effort to stay calm. His office was sacrosanct. “Herr Hauptmann, why are you here? What are you doing with my files?” He was unable to keep himself from accentuating the ‘you’.
Hauptmann Kreutz glanced pointedly at the corner of the desk where his Luger lay nestled in a holster. “This is my last warning, stupid. Do not ask me questions.” With a knowing smile, he lifted a blue folder and waved it at Willy. “This is a list of Czech citizens the Gestapo has designated as dangerous and destabilizing elements. You and your fine British store, mein Herr, are on the list. That is why we are here.”
Fear washed away Willy’s temper. He felt sweat under his arms. “Aber ... .”
The officer leaned forward, his eyes glittering with contempt. “You do business with the British, and you also spy for them. We know this from an informant.”
A spy! An informant? This is madness.
Willy was silent for a moment, shattered by how confidently Kreutz had made the accusation. His heart skittered. Spies were routinely tortured, even executed. What to say? His brain stalled; his usual quick thinking deserted him. “I’m not a spy,” he said, racking his brain for who the informant might be.
Kreutz came around the desk, slid his hand into the inside pocket of Willy’s jacket, and removed the wallet.
Willy was tight as a bowstring. He wanted to smash his fist in the officer’s face, but he knew what the consequence would be.
After a cursory examination, Kreutz passed the wallet to one of the soldiers. “Just a temporary confiscation, Herr Kohut for more detailed study” His cold eyes probed Willy’s face, finally coming to rest on his chest. He bent forward to finger the lapel of Willy’s jacket. “Merkwürdig, interessant.
This is a very unusual buttonhole.”
Momentarily confused, Willy looked down at his jacket. “It’s a dragon tail buttonhole, a trademark—the signature of a famous tailor here in Prague.” He held his breath at more sounds of footsteps in the apartment above. The pattering ones he knew belonged to Pavel, but he could only guess at the others. Is Sophie back? Have the Nazis already been up there?
He was afraid to ask.
Curling his lip as if he did not believe a word, Kreutz signaled for the soldiers to come and look for themselves. He grabbed the lapel, jerking Willy forward. “A clever idea; a way for British spies to recognize each other without speaking, a contact signal. This tailor’s trademark story is laughable.”
The soldiers nodded their understanding.
“No, you’re wrong,” said Willy swallowing his anger. “Check with Moshe Lemberger, a tailor in Old Town. All his best suits have this buttonhole lapel.”
Kreutz shrugged, and glancing down at Willy’s briefcase pried it from his grasp. He clicked it open, peered inside, and pulled out a thick bundle of banknotes. A smile broke across his face as he riffled through the notes. “Ah, wunderschön.
You are most thoughtful, Herr Kohut. The Third Reich is happy to accept such charitable donations.”
“That’s mine,” spluttered Willy, instinctively grabbing at the officer’s hand. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed a sudden movement, and almost instantaneously his right shoulder exploded in agony. Staggering sideways, he felt a cold gun barrel pressed hard against his temple. His wire-rimmed spectacles slipped sideways. A thick arm held his neck in a suffocating lock.
With his head agonizingly twisted, Willy watched Kreutz stuff the money inside his field jacket. The pressure on his windpipe increased, and he felt the rasping breaths vibrating in his chest. He gagged, tried to cough and pulled ineffectually at the immovable arm. His knees felt like rubber, and the room began to sway and go dim. I’m going to die.
“Let the Jew go,” said Kreutz, turning to the other soldier. “You—bring empty boxes from the staff car and fill them with the papers from this desk. The Gestapo will sift through the rest of this mess when they come for a more thorough search.”
“What about this Czech filth?” grunted the soldier who had applied the arm-lock. He moved the Mauser from Willy’s head to his midriff.
“Blindfold him and stick something in his mouth. He comes with us.”
Willy’s insides twisted. Feeling the urge to urinate, he tightened his bladder muscles, determined not to show weakness. Someone behind him pulled off his glasses, tied a cloth over his eyes, and stuffed a large ball of crumpled paper into his mouth. His hands were tied behind his back. His crazy thought— that this was what a trussed goose at the Holešovice market felt like—vanished under the salvo of unanswerable questions exploding in his brain. Have they been upstairs? Where is Sophie? What are the bastards going to do with me?
In the back of the car, squeezed between two soldiers and his own whirling thoughts, Willy listened to his captors boasting about how easy it had been driving in convoy from the German border, watched by peasants and the pathetic fragments of the Czech army, and how many more victims they had to pick up before lunch.
Twenty minutes later, they pulled Willy out, still blindfolded. He stumbled, trying to keep pace as they dragged him along the pavement. Is this the end? Arrested for nothing, killed for nothing.
He heard the creak of a door, barked orders, and echoing footsteps. They were inside now. After a few steps, he was pushed up a flight of stairs and along a corridor. A loud click, a shove in the back. Someone released his hands and pulled off the blindfold.
Willy spat out the sodden paper as the door slammed shut behind him. He stood blinking in a large, dimly lit room that held a conference table that could have seated 30 or more, if there had been any chairs. Several men stood around the table, hands in pockets. Others sat on the floor, faces turned toward him as he stumbled further into the room. Everything was blurred. Glasses, where are they?
He patted his jacket pockets hopefully and, with a surge of relief, discovered them. He felt less helpless. More than that, he felt lucky to be alive.
A curly-bearded, pug-nosed man, a couple of inches shorter than Willy’s five foot six, approached him. “Hullo, my new friend,” he said with a sardonic look, grabbing Willy’s arm.
Willy noticed his badly cut suit and lack of a tie. A workman.
“Welcome to the Novotný Legal Chambers.” He jerked his head toward the shelves lined with gilded tomes and then pointed at the portraits of serious-faced men in high collars and legal robes. “Consider the irony of our situation, my friend: undesirables like you and me, held prisoner illegally in the offices of a famous Czech law firm. I’ve been here an hour. The guard said we can expect many more arrivals.”
“What is this? What’s happening?”
The man shrugged, spreading his hands and then running fingers through a halo of wiry hair. “It seems we are here for processing—detailed interviews: the Nazis ask who we are, what we do, where we live, what possessions we own. The bastards come for us one at a time. My name is Ožtek, Otto, electrician extraordinaire and trade union official. And you are ... ?”
Willy was impressed by Ožtek’s articulate words. So, an intelligent, possibly well-educated, poorly dressed electrician.
“Kohut Willy, I sell wool fabric for men’s suits.” They shook hands. “Do you think we’ll be here long?”
Ožtek indicated the galvanized steel buckets lining the back wall. A man was noisily urinating into one of them. “As you can see, this is no hotel. No one is allowed to leave the room unless called.”
Panic overtook Willy again. How will Sophie and Pavel manage?
Laci and Janko would offer practical help and muscle, but only Sophie knew about the money hidden behind the stove and the counterfeit passports in the flour bin—part of his recent clandestine preparations for leaving the country. Now that the Third Reich was in Prague, something Willy never expected would happen, Czech citizens, his family, and especially all the Jews in the city were in uncharted terri-tory. He knew what monstrous things the Germans were doing to their own people. God forbid they might do the same here.