A thread of grace, p.1
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       A Thread of Grace, p.1

           Mary Doria Russell
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A Thread of Grace


  Title Page



  List of Characters



  Greater Italy, 1943

  8 September 1943

  9 September 1943

  10 September 1943

  11–13 September 1943

  Late September 1943

  October 1943

  November 1943

  Cadenza d’Inverno, Winter 1943–44

  Northwestern Italy, 1944

  March 1944

  April 1944

  May 1944

  5 June 1944

  Summer 1944

  September 1944

  November 1944

  Cadenza d’Inverno, Winter 1944–45

  Northwestern Italy, 1945

  February 1945

  March 1945

  April 1945

  May 1945

  Autumn 1947


  Author’s Note

  About the Author

  Other books by Mary Doria Russell


  Alla mia famiglia

  with thanks to Susa and Tomek,

  who made me reach for more

  Quello che siete, fummo.

  What you are, we were.

  Quello che siamo, sarete.

  What we are, you shall be.




  Renzo Leoni, a.k.a. Ugo Messner, Stefano Savoca, Don Gino Righetti

  Lidia Segre Leoni, his widowed mother; la nonna (the grandmother)

  Tranquillo Loeb, her eldest daughter’s husband

  Iacopo Soncini, chief rabbi of Sant’Andrea

  Mirella Casutto Soncini, his wife

  Angelo, their young son

  Altira, their first daughter, deceased

  Rosina, their second daughter

  Giacomo Tura, elderly Hebrew scribe


  Claudette Blum, Belgian teenager; Claudia Fiori, la vedova (the widow)

  Albert Blum, her father

  Duno Brössler, Austrian teenager, partisan

  Herrmann and Frieda Brössler, his parents

  Liesl and Steffi, his younger sisters

  Rivka Ivanova Brössler, his paternal grandmother

  Jakub Landau, organizer for the Italian CNL (Committee for National Liberation); il polacco (the Pole)


  Suora (Sister) Marta, middle-aged nun

  Suora Corniglia, novice, later nun; Suora Fossette (Sister Dimples)

  Massimo Malcovato, her father; il maggiore (the major)

  Don (male honorific) Osvaldo Tomitz, priest, Sant’Andrea

  Don Leto Girotti, priest, San Mauro; il prete rosso (the red priest)

  Santino Cicala, infantryman, Calabrian draftee

  Catarina Dolcino, the Leonis’ landlady; Rina

  Serafino Brizzolari, municipal bureaucrat, Sant’Andrea

  Antonia Usodimare, proprietress, Pensione Usodimare

  Tercilla Lovera, contadina (peasant woman), Santa Chiara

  Pierino, Tercilla’s son; il postino (the postman)

  Bettina, his sister

  Battista Goletta, Fascist farmer, Valdottavo

  Attilio Goletta, his cousin, Communist sharecropper

  Tullio Goletta, Attilio’s son, partisan

  Adele Toselli, elderly housekeeper, San Mauro rectory

  Nello Toselli, her nephew, partisan

  Maria Avoni, partisan; la puttana tedesca (the German whore)

  Otello Rollero, partisan, interpreter for Simon Henley


  Simon Henley, signalman, Special Operations executive


  Werner Schramm, deserter, Oberstabsarzt (medical officer) Waffen-SS

  Irmgard, his sister, deceased

  Erhardt von Thadden, Gruppenführer (division commander) Waffen-SS; the Schoolmaster

  Martina, his wife

  Helmut Reinecke, his adjutant, Hauptsturmführer (captain), later Standartenführer (colonel, regimental commander)

  Ernst Kunkel, Oberscharführer (staff sergeant), aide to von Thadden

  Artur Huppenkothen, Oberstpolizei (police colonel), Gestapo

  Erna, his sister




  This is what everyone would remember about his mother: her home was immaculate. Even in a place where cleanliness was pursued with religious zeal, her household was renowned for its faultless order. In Klara’s mind, there was no gradation between purity and filth.

  She had sinned as a girl, made pregnant by her married uncle. Adultery stained her soul black, and God punished her as she deserved. Her sin child died.

  So did her aunt, and Klara became her uncle’s newest wife, dutifully raising her stepchildren, keeping them very clean and very quiet, so her uncle-husband would not become angry and bring out his leather whip. Her husband was no more merciful than her God.

  Her second son died, and then her small daughter. Soon after she buried little Ida, Klara became pregnant again. Her fourth child was a sickly boy whose weakness her uncle-husband despised. Klara was ashamed that her children had died. She hovered over the new baby anxiously, told him constantly that she loved and needed him, hoping that her neighbors would notice how well he was cared for. Hoping that her uncle-husband would come to approve of her son. Hoping that God would hear her pleas, and let this child live.

  Her prayers, it seemed, were answered, but the neighbors were bemused by Klara’s mothering. She nursed her little boy for two years. He’d squirm away, or turn his face from her, but she pushed her nipple into his mouth regardless of what troubled him. She fed and fed and fed that child. Food was medicine. Food could ward off numberless, nameless, lurking diseases. “Eat,” she’d plead. “Eat, or you’ll get sick and die.” It was immoderate, even in a village where mothers expected children to swallow whatever was put before them, and to clean their plates.

  In adulthood, Klara’s son would have nightmares about suffocation. He would suck on a finger in times of stress, or stuff himself with chocolates. He was obsessed with his body’s odors and became a vegetarian, convinced that this diet reduced his propensity to sweat excessively and improved the aroma of his intestinal gas. He discussed nutritional theories at length but had a poor appetite. He could not watch others eat without trying to spoil their enjoyment. He’d call broth “corpse tea,” and once pointed out that a roast suckling pig looked “just like a cooked baby.”

  Whenever he looked in a mirror, he would see his mother’s eyes: china-blue and frightened. Frightened of dirt, of her husband, of illness, and of God. Klara’s son was frightened, too. Frightened of priests and hunters, of cigarette smokers and skiers, of liberals, journalists, germs and dirt, of gypsies, judges, and Americans. He was frightened of being wrong, of being weak, of being effeminate. Frightened of poets and of Poles, of academics and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Frightened of moonlight and horses, of snow and water and the dark. Frightened of microbes and spirochetes, of feces, and of old men, and of the French.

  The very blood in his veins was dangerous. There were birth defects and feeblemindedness in his incestuous family. His uncle-father was a bastard, and Klara’s son worried all his life that unsavory gossip about his ancestry would become public. He was frightened of sexual intercourse and never had children, afraid his tainted blood would be revealed in them. He was terrified of cancer, which took his mother’s life, and horrified that he had suckled at diseased breasts.

  How could anyone live with so much fear?

  His solution was to simplify. He sought and seized one all-encompas
sing explanation for the existence of sin and disease, for all his failures and disappointments. There was no weakness in his parents, his blood, his mind. He was faultless; others were filth. He could not change his china-blue eyes, but he could change the world they saw. He would identify the secret source of every evil and root it out, annihilating at a stroke all that threatened him. He would free Europe of pollution and defilement—only health and confidence and purity and order would remain!

  Are such grim and comic facts significant, or merely interesting? Here’s another: the doctor who could not cure Klara Hitler’s cancer was Jewish.

  Greater Italy


  Anno Fascista XXII

  8 September 1943



  A simple answer to a simple question. That’s all Werner Schramm requires.

  “Where’s the church?” he yells, belligerent and sick—sicker yet when his shout becomes a swampy cough.

  A small crowd gathers to appreciate the spectacle: a Waffen-SS officer, thin, fortyish, and liquored up. He props his hands against his knees, coughing harder. “La basilica!” he gasps, remembering the Italian. “San Giovanni—dove è?”

  A young woman points. He catches the word campanile, and straightens, careful of his chest. Spotting the bell tower above a tumble of rooftops that stagger toward the sea, he turns to thank her. Everyone is gone.

  No matter. Downhill is the path of least resistance for a man who’s drunk himself legless. Nearer the harbor, the honeyed light of the Italian Riviera gilds wrecked warehouses and burnt piers, but there’s not much bomb damage inland. No damned room for an explosion, Schramm thinks.

  Jammed between the Mediterranean and the mountains, the oldest part of Porto Sant’Andrea doesn’t even have streets—just carrugi: passages barely wide enough for medieval carts. Cool and shadowy even at noon, these masonry ravines wind past the cobblers’ and barbers’ shops, apothecaries, vegetable stands, and cafés wedged at random between blank-walled town houses with shuttered windows.

  Glimpses of the bell tower provide a sense of direction, but Schramm gets lost twice before stumbling into a sunny little piazza. He scowls at the light, sneezes, wipes his watering eyes. “Found you!” he tells the Basilica di San Giovanni Battista. “Tried t’hide, but it didn’ work!”

  San Giobatta, the locals call this place, as though John the Baptist were a neighborhood boy, poor and charmless but held in great affection. Squatting on a granite platform, the dumpy little church shares its modest courtyard with an equally unimpressive rectory and convent, their builder’s architectural ambition visibly tempered by parsimony. Broad stripes of cheap black sandstone alternate with grudgingly thin layers of white Carrara marble. The zebra effect is regrettable.

  Ineffective sandbags surround the church, its southeast corner freshly crumpled and blackened by an Allied incendiary bomb. A mob of pigeons waddle through the rubble, crapping and cooing. “The pope speaks lovely German,” Schramm informs them. “Nuncio to Berlin before he got his silly hat. Perhaps I ought to go to Rome and confess to Papa Pacelli!”

  He laughs at his own impertinence, and pays for it with another coughing fit. Eyes watering, hands trembling, he drops onto the basilica staircase and pulls out the battered flask he keeps topped up and nestled near his heart. He takes small sips until brandy calms the need to cough, and the urge to flee.

  Prepared now, he stands. Squares his shoulders. Advances resolutely on massive doors peopled with bronzed patriarchs and tarnished virgins. Curses with surprise when they won’t yield to his tug. “I want a pries’!” he yells, rapping on the door, first with his knuckles and then more insistently with the butt of his Luger.

  Creaking hinges reveal the existence of a little wooden side door. A middle-aged nun appears, her sleeves shoved into rubber gauntlets, her habit topped by a grimy apron. Frowning at the noise, she is short and shaped like a beer keg. Her starched white wimple presses pudgy cheeks toward a nose that belongs on a propaganda Jew.

  Christ, you’re homely.

  Schramm wipes his mouth on his sleeve, wondering if he has spoken aloud. For years, words have threatened to pour out, like blood from his throat. He fears hemorrhage.

  Shivering in the heat, he makes a move toward the door. The nun bars his way. “La chiesa è chiusa!” she says, but Schramm pushes past her.

  The baptistry reeks of carbolic, incense, explosives, and charred stone. Three novices scour its limestone floor. The prettiest sits on her heels, her face smudged with soot from the firebomb’s damage. Calmly, she studies the Luger dangling in this German’s right hand. Behind him, Sister Beer Keg snaps her fingers. Eyes drop. Work resumes.

  Schramm shoves the pistol into its holster, pulls off his campaign cap, and rubs a sweaty palm over cropped brown hair. The nave is empty apart from a single man who ambles down the center aisle, neck cranked back like a cormorant’s, hands clasped loosely behind his back. This personage studies the swirling seraphim and whey-faced saints above, himself an allegorical portrait come to life: Unconcern in a Silver-Gray Suit.

  Distracted by the tourist, Schramm takes a step toward the confessionals and trips over a bucket of water. “Scheisse,” he swears, hopping away from the spill.

  “Basta!” the fat nun declares, pulling him toward the door.

  “Io need ein padre!” he insists, but his Italian is two decades old—the fading souvenir of a year in Florence. The Beer Keg shakes her head. Standing his ground, Schramm points at a confessional. “Un padre, understand?”

  “La chiesa è chiusa!”

  “I know the church is closed! But I need—”

  “A strong black coffee?” the tourist suggests pleasantly. His German is Tyrolean, but there’s no mistaking the graceful confidence of an Italian male who employs a superb tailor. “A medical officer!” he says, noting the insignia on Schramm’s collar. “You speak the language of Dante most vigorously, Herr Doktor, but the people of this region generally use a Ligurian dialect, not the classical Italian you are—”

  “Butchering,” Schramm supplies, with flat accuracy.

  “Striving for, one might have said. With your permission, I can explain to Suora Marta that you’re seeking a priest who speaks German.”

  Schramm listens hard, but their dialect is as thick as an Austrian’s head, and he gives up until the tourist translates. “Suora tells me Archbishop Tirassa’s assistant speaks excellent German. Confessions, however, will not be heard again until Saturday.” When Schramm begins to protest, the Italian holds up a conciliatory hand. “I shall point out that in time of war, the angel of death is more capricious than usual. Preparation for his arrival should not be delayed.”

  The man’s voice becomes a soothing melody of persuasion and practicality. Schramm watches Suora Marta’s face. She reminds him of his mother’s sister, a Vincentian nun equally short and dumpy and ugly. “Like Papa used t’say, ‘Christ’ll take what nobody else wants.’ ”

  “And so there is hope, even for pigs like you,” the nun replies.

  Schramm’s jaw drops. A stunned laugh escapes his interpreter. Eyes fearlessly on Schramm’s own, Suora Marta removes her rubber gloves and apron. Without hurry, she untucks her habit, straightens her gown, folds her outer sleeves back to the proper cuff length. Hands sliding beneath her scapular, she gives Schramm one last dirty look before gliding away with chubby dignity.

  Schramm tips a mouthful of brandy down his throat. “Verdammte Scheisse! Why didn’ you tell me she speaks German?”

  “I didn’t know! As a general rule, however, courtesy has much to recommend it in any language. This is a small port, but many of us have a working knowledge of German,” the man continues, deflecting the conversation ever so slightly. “We’ve done a fair amount of business with Venezia Giulia since 1918— Pardon! No doubt you would call the region Adriatisches Küstenland.”

  “Mus’ cost a fortune for new stationery every time
the border moves,” Schramm remarks, offering the brandy.

  “Printers always prosper.” The Italian raises the flask in salute and takes a healthy swallow. “If you won’t be needing me anymore . . . ?”

  Schramm nods, and the man strolls off toward an alcove, pausing to admire a fresco of the Last Judgment that Schramm himself finds unnecessarily vivid. Searching for a place to sit, Schramm gets a fix on some pews near the confessionals, takes another sip from the flask. “No retreat!” he declares. Probably aloud.

  The tourist’s slow circuit of the church is punctuated by murmurs of dismay. A fifteenth-century baptismal font is damaged. A colorful jumble of shattered glass lies beneath a blown-out window. “Verdamm’ Tommies,” Schramm mutters. “British claim’re only bombing military sites, but Hamburg is rubble! Dehousing the workers, that’s what they call it. Terrorflieger, we call it. Leverkusen, München. Köln, Düsseldorf. Rubble, all of them! Did you know that?”

  “We hear only rumor these days, even with the change in government,” the Italian replies, declining comment on Mussolini’s recent fall from power.

  Schramm waves his flask at the damage before taking another pull. “RAF pilots’re so fugging inaggurate—” Schramm tries again. “They are so . . . fucking . . . inaccurate.” Satisfied with his diction, he swivels his head in the direction of his new friend. “They call it a hit if they aim at a dock and smash a church!”

  “Very sloppy,” the Italian agrees. “A shocking lack of professional pride!”

  Slack-jawed, Schramm’s skull tips back of its own accord. He stares at the painted angels wheeling above him until his hands lose track of what they’re supposed to be doing and the flask slips from his fingers. He aims his eyes at the floor, where the last of the liquor is pooling. “Tha’s a pity,” he mourns. Laboriously, he lifts first one foot and then the other onto the pew, sliding down until he is prone. “Fat ol’ nun,” he mutters. Pro’ly never committed a sin in her whole life . . .

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