In The Butterfly, Paul M. Hedeen takes us back to the fall of 1963, a few weeks before President Kennedy’s assassination. An obscure émigré Russian professor dies of a stroke—or so it is believed. The professor’s eccentricities and complicity create both mystery and jeopardy as his documents lead his student backward into a century of famine, political terror, and war and forward into a bewildering underworld of malevolent opportunists, unstable identities, and improvised histories.
When the student falls in with the troubled daughter of the Nazi elite, she becomes his lover, guide, and tormentor as both are irresistibly drawn into the dark aftermath of World War II. Memoirs, fairy tales, fiction, and scenarios interweave and reveal the postwar fate of Eva Braun and secrets concerning the famous Holocaust photo, “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa.”
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THE SUDDEN THING
A MAN HAS died. Dr. Warren Hart, Chair of the Foreign Language Institute, knew a memorial service's first purpose is to steep, as in the blackest and most bitter tea, its participants in death's irrefutable claim. Given the human desire to embroider endlessly and colorfully, to attach to life all sorts of inane addenda like heaven or hell or reincarnation, this fact might be the last of knowledge before the gossip would begin.
Yes, a man has died. They were dying all over Chicago, after all, as they must.
Hart clicked his tongue. To be honest, he thought, the dead are irrelevant almost before they hit the gurney. Life is relentless, all about sex, about yes and now, and the dead are like ... Well, what are they like? Even with one war behind him and another ahead, Dr. Hart struggled. How had this morning's hymn stated it? Hart screwed up his face trying to remember. Oh, yes, truly, the dead have "crossed over." The Lethe? From earth to where? Whitman said it best; a body was "good manure." "Look for me under your boot-soles," he commanded at the end of his great poem. Into manure, then earth, and then the grass, the "hair of graves." No matter, Hart thought, smiling. Whitman was crazy — like the now dead Professor Kapailenko. Maybe I'll know better when my time comes, Hart concluded, reassuring no one, especially himself.
Professor Dmytro Kapailenko's death had been sudden. The cause was rumored to be a stroke. The burial had been quick and private. Even the just concluded memorial service had been brief, not the appropriate one hour. The Russian Orthodox hymns, chants, and liturgy requested in the funeral instructions could not be learned by the college choir in the time allowed, and so the chaplain's watery nondenominational fare had been served up with ample portions of "the Book." Did Dr. Hart care? No, not as long as appearances had been kept up. Appearances, after all, were his strength. After even one glass of Merlot, always after lunch, he'd admit as much.
Now with his colleague's funeral rites concluded, Chair Hart was only too eager to escape. Others had fled, nodding with restrained good nature, yet allowing their faces to brighten as soon as they spied the light blasting in bent rainbows through the cut glass squares on the chapel's oaken doors. "God light," some had called it, half-ironically, for the chapel and chaplaincy persisted at Hart's university as a gesture rather than commitment. The attendees' lit masks, even in near twilight, hid a liberal disrespect Hart could appreciate. Hypocrites, I suppose, Hart thought, but then tact and civility were often dishonest, filing the teeth of egotism, declawing the human beast.
But what were the attendees supposed to feel? Dr. Dmytro Kapailenko, or "Kappy" as his few friends called him, had brought to their Institute only a livid embarrassment, giving his colleagues a collective red face.
There was no recession at the service. Rushed into the ground, the casket had not been present to view, so there was nothing to follow out. In fact, no one Hart knew had even seen the body, which was found by a friend whom no one on campus had ever met and rushed by private ambulance to an undisclosed funeral home. All other arrangements for this modest memorial had been thrown onto Hart's hands.
As Kappy's chair, Hart also had been required by propriety and protocol to attend. But to suggest a willing duty did Hart too much justice, as he would admit. Provost Limpf, one of his bosses, had ordered him to attend, and she had let it be known this order began with the much rattled University President Chelivek, who had reported our State Department as well as embassy officials from West Germany, Israel, and the Soviet Union had an interest in the professor's passing, even in the contents of his office. When Hart had asked why, the Provost had simply put her finger to her lips, and so he'd hushed. His instructions were simple. Be a good chair. Engage and cultivate Kapailenko's protÃ(c)gÃ(c), a misled boy named Carlyle, who for some stupid reason was the dead professor's literary executor with the legal authority to manage his mentor's work.
So Hart had put on a brave face: respectful, stoical, and enlightened; an august face creased with studied consideration; a face reflecting thoughts of the brevity of life inspired by an untimely death. Hart's wavy graying hair, worn long, as was becoming the fashion, framed his smooth face, even teeth, and bright blue eyes. His jaw, which still retained its edge, communicated, when set, seriousness without severity. His jawbone aside, his face flushed with a rosiness betraying, he knew, self-indulgence. Being so well-tended had not enhanced his position among his poorer paid colleagues. Fortunately, Hart's eyes could be made to soften, feigning sensitivity to the tragic arc of Kappy's story.
This story's hero was a starving Ukrainian boy who escaped a 1930s famine to become a young man who in the 1940s had evaded both Stalin's and Hitler's murderous dictatorships, fighting them both at different times in the war and afterward as a UPA partisan with Stepan Bandera in western Ukraine before escaping to Turkey. He was a wartime friend of anyone who loved his motherland — or so went the tale. Ultimately, remarkably for someone not otherwise blessed by upbringing and connections, he became a refugee-academician educated among other Ã(c)migrÃ(c)s in Toronto and Chicago and who, against all odds, championed the triumph of Ukrainian enlightenment and learning over Soviet brutality and oppression. The patriot's credentials also had scholarly heft, for the not-so-young academician had published with lightning speed (and light) some of the best analyses of Pushkin ever penned — before his genius turned to folly.
Unconvinced as Hart was about the high points of this canard, the Chair wore a mask of official yet poignant mourning, even as his mind drifted into shameful places. These included Provost Limpf's aging but still eager body and, at least on this occasion, the undeniable relief he'd felt at this Ukrainian superhero's surprising extinction, saving Hart the enormous trouble of keeping the fractious eccentric on course or steering him into retirement's safe harbor.
But there was no shelter for Hart, at least for the moment, for he could see Dmytro's student, young Carlyle, across the room. The boy's dour look, his lowered chin, the aimless tapping of his scuffed wingtips all suggested he shared none of Hart's lift. As usual, he peered over his black- framed glasses. He wasn't an idiot, as Hart and others once had suspected, just disappointed, probably because the attendance at this reception was scant. For most of those who had only half-filled the small chapel, the memorial service had been enough of the old Slav — what more could be said?
Warren Hart moved closer to the coffee and cookies. He must be nice, or at least try, so he tried a bright tone. "The thing you read — Eva Braun? She really used those words?" When he got no response, he added, "You were going for comic relief, no doubt." He chuckled, a noise dry and thin, hoping the young man might join in. "I bet this was the first time in the history of funeral oration Mrs. Hitler has been quoted."
Summoned and stung, Carlyle turned and closed the few steps between them, his first words and steps in equal pacing. "Maybe you're right. But whether she said it or not, it was in Dr. Kapailenko's manuscript. So ..." Carlyle looked around, reddening, as if realizing for the first time how grotesquely absurd his use of this text really was. "Dr. Kapailenko had gathered all sorts of sayings, characters, stories — even mementos somehow. Over the years I mean. He has letters and diaries, too. Remarkable, he never gave up. Quite an archive. He was always searching, trying, he said, to beat the bear out of the birches. He's shared his stuff with me, and I've only begun to get it into some sort of order."
"Order? Remarkable?" the older professor added, shaking his head. "Not remarkable if you knew old Dmytro. Pardon me, I mean, Dr. Kapailenko. His collecting was just crazy. Not to speak ill of the dead ..." But he so wanted to, to say how Kappy's was an ordinary compulsion and of sexual origin, as compulsions usually are. Hart paused, knitting his brow, holding back the flow, for a reception after a memorial service was hardly the time to profess, yet words surged to the wellhead. "The man, against all prudence, common sense ..." There it came. He bit it back again, desiring to add, against professional respect, integrity — dignity, I suppose — and whatever else, "... Pursued this questionable topic, and others like it, after so promising a beginning." Hart looked down into Carlyle's eyes, hoping to make a point without being boorish. "Hair, clothes, personal effects, letters, silver, photos — in the end a doll. Like a blow-up doll for a model? And then there was talk of a live model. A student, no less." The senior professor wanted to hoot, but settled for a toss of his chin with another chuckle, this time from even lower in his throat, for to laugh now would be unseemly — still, he had gone too far. "Sorry. I was worried some of this might come up in the eulogy or remembrances. Good we dodged a bullet, eh?" Hart pretended his hand was a pistol and pointed it at the floor.
Carlyle flushed and then pressed his point. "Not a doll! A mannequin. And there were no students." He frowned, looking to Hart as if he were feeling the stagnant mass of real grief and needed a good cry. "Well, yes, unique, I know. This interest in Eva Braun — and the war criminal Jürgen Blend. But you aren't him. You haven't been through what he's been through. You don't know what he knows." He paused and corrected himself. "What he knew. What I know, too, I think. The beginnings of it, anyway. It's there in the manuscripts — all kinds of writing."
"Hmmm." Hart thought of a quip about the differences between sleeping with a mannequin and an inflatable doll, but he held back and looked away. He spent a few long seconds gazing out over the heads of his fellow attendees, hoping the young man would drift to someone else, but when he looked back, there the implacable Carlyle remained, his face even more pinched by suffering.
"Just read this," the young man demanded, pulling from his jacket pocket some folded pages. Reluctantly, Hart put on his reading glasses:
* * *
WE LOOK OUT upon a snowy field. It is a late November afternoon in 1963. The slanting light has the silvery quality of early winter. Shadows are long. Freezing fog is apparent. The land is flat. Here and there furrows and stubble emerge from the remaining snow. A plot has been excavated and roped off. In the left background, there is a tumbled stack of simple wooden coffins, behind these a dense forest: beech, aspen, pines so dark they're black. The wet trees are like prison bars against the snow. Centered in the near distance are several graves. At one a lone man kneels. At another, two very poor country women stand. The man is Jürgen Blend, and one woman, in more traditional Ukrainian dress and headscarf, is Olesya, but we won't know any of their identities until later. We are near Vinnitsa in Soviet Ukraine.
Decomposed figures are in the graves. One, where the man kneels, has an open coffin. In it is a woman. She wears a very dirty blue dress. There is light hair and a skull. As we look down upon her, the skull becomes a beautiful but battered face on the day the dirt fell. It is Eva Braun, Blend's Butterfly. But we cannot know of this yet.
The blue eyes are open in death. The mouth is parted. The face is bruised to black on one side. The face now comes to life and smiles. Distant laughter is heard. At first it is joyous, but in just a beat or two it becomes hysterical.
Then we are back in the present. Russian voices, male, gruff then laughing, are in the background. There is the sound of a bottle tinkling as it is tossed away. It and the roaring of a truck motor both indicate there are people present besides the old man and the two women.
The woman named Olesya looks down at a decomposed male figure in a large grave. Now this figure also changes to a very grainy and shadowed image of the man's death. The camera shakes. It is an enacted depiction of the famous "The last Jew in Vinnitsa" photo encountered in this narrative a number of times. The moving image freezes into the photo.
As the scene at the graves continues, traces of the photograph and film persist. The three people and the graves they gaze into form a quiet tableau. The man and women weep, but there must be only grief, no sentimentality. The sound of this weeping ends with an echoing "Pavlo" screamed from somewhere in time. With this scream, the women and man look up into our eyes.
The distant trees are stark against the melting snow. All sound — weeping, a woman distantly screaming — is swept away by the sound of wind, which is itself replaced by another woman speaking.
As she speaks we see the distant sky, then a raven lifting from a tree bough. When she says "figure," a young Adolf Hitler appears in the manner she describes and when she states "you" this figure dissolves into the young Jürgen Blend, the man in the photograph killing the last Jew.
"Zeit vergeht und unsere schicksale entstehen."
"Time passes and our fates emerge. Indistinct yet unmistakable, they are like a figure approaching out of the mist. His pale face is obscure; his demeanor is relaxed, confident. He wears an expensive coat of the finest gray wool. The man turns and leads you to what must be. Yes, he is of the same clay as you. He hides his hands, so look at your own. You see, you have shaped him as well as yourself."
* * *
"EVA BRAUN SAID this thing about fate and time?" Then, feigning ignorance, for Hart, too, had tried his hand at writing for movies: "What, a monologue?" He stabbed the passage at the end with his forefinger. "Seems labored. Cinema is a visual medium, after all."
He looked over the young man's head to someone, anyone who might rescue him. He gave back the pages, nipped at his cookie, and winked. "I thought Eva Braun was an idiot."
"It is Dr. Kapailenko's scenario, or one given to him. I was to play my stepfather, he told me, although his family is Ukrainian, not German, so I don't know what he was talking about. He had a ton of money. He'd hired a producer already." Then, apparently remembering how Dr. Hart had described Eva Braun, he asked, "Why would you think she was stupid?" The younger man looked concerned.
Hart didn't answer but looked at him closely, hoping to discover in his eyes the motivation for what might become a confrontation. "Well, Hitler said as a genius he should have a servile and stupid woman, right? Didn't he also say geniuses shouldn't have children, for they are always disappointments?"
"Well, he chose Braun."
"Yes, I suppose so. But you are suggesting consistency between thought, speech, and action — a lot to expect from a human being."
Hart smiled. He didn't expect to be schooled by this schoolboy.
The boy pressed, "And one has to consider Braun, knowing her man's beliefs, might have played up to them, to please him, you know — something other Hitler women could not do."
"Hmmm." Hart sipped his coffee, hoping again to be saved by an interruption.
"She was smart this way, I think. She was at his side until the end. Maybe through the end and beyond. Kept faith, which counts for something."
"Yes, something. But, my dear Carlyle, dogs are loyal, too, and we don't require of them any real thinking." Hart gave the last two words heavy emphasis. Too heavy, he realized, making him seem both pompous and obvious. As the boy moped, Hart thought again about Carlyle's given name "Fortunatus," as if his parents wanted to mark him out for special ill-fortune. To Hart's thinking, Carlyle had turned out to be a crackpot, just like his dead mentor. First of all, Fortunatus couldn't finish his degree, which in Dr. Hart's academic world was a killing demerit. Moreover, poor Carlyle couldn't seem to get anything else going. He was stuck. Hart smiled at the irony, given the fate of his Kappy. Carlyle was one of those people who hang about a campus and college town, gradually aging, increasing the disparity in years between the real students and him, and showing up at university events as a parody of the intellectual he might have become. Interesting, Hart realized, this never seemed to happen to women. They either finished or moved on; they became something. However, to add to this young man's afflictions, Carlyle was probably also a poet, or at least demonstrated an artist's, rather than a linguist's or scholar's, attachment to life's stuff. Hart returned to the moment. "My boy, only you think these things. Didn't others also say Braun was a simple girl?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Butterfly"
Copyright © 2018 Paul M. Hedeen.
Excerpted by permission of BHC Press.
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