This is quite a long story – longer than I thought it would be. It’s historical fiction, about Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Jogiches who were two revolutionaries in Germany during WW1 who fought for a communist government, but it’s told from the point of view of their illegitimate (and completely fictional) son.
He was conceived in 1901. There was never any question, even when she told Leon and he stared at her with sorrowful, painful eyes. This was a child they would keep and raise. Even though times were becoming increasingly harder, and the newspaper took much of their time, they would find a way. She named the child Tomas. Tomas Luxemburg, though soon enough it would be too dangerous to use that surname.
Berlin was fragrant in the summer. The trees had not yet lost their blossoms and they hid, entwining with the leaves – tiny bursts of colour in a sea of green. Her house stood on the street, deprived of a garden, but Rosa knew that the roses at her parents’ house would be in full bloom, the petals scattering on the pavement and under people’s feet. She thought guiltily about the tiny child in her womb, probably no bigger than a rose petal. Her parents would undoubtedly end up with him at some stage. At least he would grow up with the roses.
Her first task was to tell Gustav. The marriage was on the verge of disaster anyway. It had only ever been a marriage of convenience, in order to acquire a German passport. What was left would dissolve a few minutes from now. She wouldn’t even have to mention that the child wasn’t his. The fact that she was with child in the first place would be enough. She chose to tell him at the coffee table as he sat with his feet up, drinking his favourite German beer. When she said the words, his face puckered.
“Whose is it?” he said in a monotone.
“An old friend.” She left it at that. Gustav could use his imagination. He turned away from her, sighing laboriously, as if he was the one who would have to give birth to it and raise it. She left the room before the conversation could continue any longer. In her study, she quietly turned over the thin leaves of the letters Leon had sent her over the years. The last one in her collection sat aside from the rest. I am coming to Berlin. Please may we meet some time? I have not seen you in years, my love, and my heart years for you…
She shut away the box of letters, stuffing the final one in without looking back. That had been May. Now it was July and look what had happened.
The months passed and Rosa felt the small child growing with a sense of slow reluctance. It would cause problems in her schedule. She already had to keep public appearances to a minimum, letting others such as Clara and Karl do most of the speaking while she hid away in her apartment with Gustav breathing down her neck. Every look that he gave her seemed to say this is your fault, this is a grave mistake. At least when the child was born, she could give it to her parents for a while and pretend that nothing had happened. But for now it was attached to her body, a growth that was a symbol of her mistake. It would not let her alone.
The child was born in February. In Berlin, February meant snow and ice and frost covered balconies. In Rosa and Gustav’s small apartment, it meant the squalling of an infant and the silence of Rosa’s guilt come to life. Tomas was a healthy baby, at least. He seemed to have his father’s eyes, yet newer and rounder. It caused her heart to beat faster whenever their gaze met. She liked to hold him close to her chest, to hear that newborn heart, to let those small fingers wrap around her thumb. When she was alone, with time to think, often she would find herself crying. She loved this child far too much more than her position allowed. And soon, work took over. The newspaper occupied most of her time, and so did Tomas, who would wake crying at ungodly hours of the night, who would capture her attention with his great, curious eyes. She wanted to hold him, to take him outside, to show him the world. But to let anyone know of his existence was the end of her reputation. Had she been any other woman, she would have done it. But she was Rosa Luxemburg, voice of the women, voice of the communist league. She had a duty to fulfil, and not that of a mother.
Just before Tomas turned a year old, she met with her parents in Warsaw to hand him over. The shameful looks they had given her, the shaking heads, the tears of her mother, were almost unbearable. They cursed Leon, even in her presence, and warned her of her precarious reputation. “If word got out…” Rosa gave them money and most of the clothes and toys she had already bought for Tomas, but of course that would never be enough. It was time, flexibility that her parents were sacrificing for her own good. Precious possessions that Rosa simply did not have. She left her son with tears running down her cheeks. Then, when she reached the front gate, framed by the rosebushes, she dried her eyes on her scarf, drew herself up tall and straight, and continued walking as Rosa Luxemburg, voice of women, voice of communists.
Tomas’ first ever childhood memories were of his grandparents. He could never remember those early visits from his father and those tearful ones from his mother. Grandmother and grandfather never liked Leon (he didn’t call him father), so he didn’t usually visit. He knew from what his grandparents told him that his mother was married before, and not to Leon either, but that the marriage ended a few years later. Already, his grandparents had set him up to attend a school in Warsaw. But before anything of the sort could happen, he was plucked out of the city.
Leon came to take him when he was three years old. The memories were still there, however muddled and unclean. He was a short man, with dark eyes and a small, black beard. He looked at Tomas with guilty eyes, ran a hand through his short hair. He told his grandmother that he was taking him away, to live with him. He lived in the same city, not far away. Tomas could still go to his school, but he would be living in Leon’s house. It was the only way he could repay them, he said. And so Tomas’ home changed to the stuffy apartment building in the midst of the city, with the distant thunder of slow industry constantly in his ears. Leon had a bedroom for him and bought him toys to play with. He made friends with the other boys in the street where they raced toy cars in the gutters. Tomas’ memories of the place were never very clear, but for the sound of laughter and the vision of that stuffy apartment. Leon tried the best to keep the three-year-old occupied, but it was never an easy task. On rainy days, he wished the boy could read or at least find a means of amusing himself. But sometimes, when business was less busy, the newspaper sorted for a while, he would sit down with the child and they would play with model cars or draw pictures on butchers’ paper. He could see Rosa in the boy’s face, hear it in his voice, his laugh. He hadn’t seen Rosa in a long while, let alone heard her laugh. He was glad to have a son, if only to connect him with his lover.
But in the next year even backwards Warsaw became dangerous. He had warned Rosa long ago that Berlin and her own public image may not be safe, but now it was he that had to be worried. Immediately, she came to see him, and he noticed the longing in her eyes when she talked of Tomas. She took the boy from him, on the train, back to Berlin. The next day, the police came for him. Sentenced to eight years of hard labour. How he would miss normal life.
Berlin was another world to Tomas. It was a busy world of tall buildings and smoke and more people than he had ever seen. He could not play in the streets anymore, but soon he would start school and meet new people every day. He liked his mother well enough, only briefly recognising her face when they met at Leon’s house. Leon and Rosa had kissed, Leon had run his hand through her hair and their eyes had been bright, sparkled almost. He had said her name in the most beautiful way, as if it were a jewel, a rare fruit, an exotic spice. Tomas did not want to call her Rosa, not after he had heard Leon say it that way, but he did not want to call her mother either. Who was mother? Mother was not grandmother. Mother was not Rosa. Mother was not any other woman he had ever known. Mother was nobody. Though when she had met him at Leon’s apartment, she had held him tight to her chest and kissed the top of his head. Tomas thought, is this what mothers do? At the house in Berlin, she was always running about, with her strange, limping gait, repeating to herself names and phrases of people, places. She had already told him that he was never to repeat what she said. It was dangerous, she told him. And then, a few months later, Tomas knew what dangerous was. Dangerous came to their apartment door one night, a small, busy woman who had pinched his cheeks and talked to Rosa in a hurried, whispering voice. Because of Dangerous, Tomas and Rosa were on the train the next day. The train to Warsaw, to grandmother and grandfather. They were not pleased to see him.
Although grandmother hugged him and patted him on the head, telling him that he’d grown, he could see that he was not wanted. The message was transferred in hurried conversation and desperate, disapproving looks aimed at Rosa. That evening, Rosa left again. Though tears leaked from his mother’s eyes and she hugged him tightest of all, Tomas did not feel any pain as she left. He was home now, true home. This was the home that he had lived in when he was small. These were his parents.
He remained with his grandparents for a good part of his early childhood years. He went to the same school that they had set up for him all those years ago. Sometimes he saw his father, walking along the streets, his hands in his pockets, smoking a cigarette. He looked handsome, busy. Tomas wondered whether he would end up the same way. There were days when he wished so, but then he remembered those disjointed months he had spent with Leon, in which he had been so constantly busy. At least his grandparents had time for him when his parents never did.
As Tomas grew older and his understanding increased, he began to ask important questions of his grandparents. What did his parents do for a living? Why did Rosa never have time to be a mother to him? Why did they never marry? All his grandparents would do was shake their heads and tell him to ask his mother when she came around. But Rosa never came to visit these days. Where was she? Tomas was at school now, but his name was not Tomas Luxemburg anymore, it was Tomas Lowenstein, the surname of his grandparents. Was this his new family now? Had he become a part of it so much that now his name was to be changed? But his grandmother told him it was only a temporary thing, because his surname was Dangerous. Now, it seemed, so much was Dangerous. His mother and father were both Dangerous, his name was Dangerous, did this mean that he himself would soon become Dangerous?
When Tomas turned ten, finally Rosa was able to see him. Something had happened, she was free now. She would travel to Warsaw when she had a spare moment to visit the home, sometimes take him places, or just talk to him about school and life in Warsaw. She seemed to be intently interested in every aspect of his life, though when he asked her about hers, out of politeness, she seemed to avoid his questions. His grandparents always seemed suspicious while she was around, their eyes darting to the windows, the doors. His grandfather spilled his coffee all over Tomas’ books when a person knocked on the door one day, but it was only the neighbour. Whenever Rosa left, grandmother would let out a long, heavy sigh. She would explain to Tomas that it was Dangerous for his mother to visit very often, and for that reason he should treasure every visit. But Tomas never did. Sometimes, when she visited, he was scared like grandmother and grandfather. And sometimes, deeply hidden under layers of emotion, he was glad when she left.
But in 1914, the whole world changed. It seemed that Europe exploded and suddenly, overnight, everything was different. There was a darkness that crept into every street, crammed itself into alleyways, took up residence in people’s faces, their expressions. It kept Tomas’ father and mother away, but only for so long. Then his mother came to take him again. Back to Berlin. His grandparents insisted he stay, but she wept and told them she wanted him close by. The world was changing, and so was Europe. He was her child and she wanted him back. Though his grandparents fought dearly, Tomas soon found himself on the train yet again, his mother in the seat next to him, yet never looking at him. She stared out the window and did not so much as hold his hand, although she had hugged and kissed him to bits at her parents’ house. When they reached Berlin it was the same. Rosa instructed Tomas to walk at least six paces behind her and never to stare at her. He mustn’t pretend that they were related, and he would have to wait at least five minutes before walking into the apartment behind her. He had to ask her what the number was again. He had only visited the place once before.
It had not changed. Rosa had changed, but not the apartment. Rosa was older now, with dark, marauder’s circles under her eyes. On the first night, Leon came to visit. He looked Tomas up and down proudly, remarking how tall he had gotten, that he would need new clothes soon. But then Rosa had snapped, telling him that nobody could afford new clothes. There was a war on. That was a new world in Tomas’ vocabulary. War. It was a dirty, ugly word. It was the word of darkness and shadows, of night time and sorrow. That night, Rosa and Leon were talking loudly, heatedly. They were arguing over him. Where was safer? Nowhere was safe. He should have been left with his grandparents. But his grandparents were sick and tired of having to care for him! “If only you had known, Leon…” But Leon had kissed her and said her name with that same passion, and Rosa’s eyes had been forgiving. And Tomas, watching from behind the bedroom door, open to a sliver, had known that his life was destined to be difficult for both of his parents. At the age of twelve, Tomas knew that he was an unwanted child.
A few days later, Tomas was moved again. This time, home was at Leon’s apartment in another suburb. It smelled of cigarettes and coffee and typewriters, of which Leon had three. Almost constantly the house was filled with that quick, drumming noise, the sound of hands leafing through pages, reading and re-reading. It was all that Leon did. Sometimes he asked Tomas to help him. They both seemed to have forgotten that he needed to attend a school. Tomas would sit in Leon’s study and flick through the papers, looking for certain names, certain places. Then he would cut out the articles and show them to Leon, who would peruse through them and then begin to type again, furiously. At one stage, he considered teaching Tomas to type as well, but typing was not a man’s profession. It was something a woman should do, a secretary. But Tomas knew that Rosa was not and would never be anything of the sort. As he wandered the streets, looking for other boys of his age and browsing through sweet shops, he would sometimes hear his mother’s name mentioned. She certainly seemed to be in the papers a lot. There were many photos of her standing, talking to crowds. Her job must be very important, Tomas thought, especially if so many people listened to her. Sometimes he asked Leon what exactly he was typing and was surprised to find that his mother had written most of it. Whenever Leon talked of Rosa, it was always in awe. He seemed to think that she could save the country, or the government at least. But others never seemed to think so.
One day Leon was in a temper. He was often in a temper these days, but this was the worst yet. He tore paper, scrunched it in his hand, kicked at the table and the stacks of books there, and yelled at Tomas for stealing a slice of bread from the pantry. Then he sat down at the table with his head in his hands, simply repeating apology after apology. Life was hard. War was a difficult time to live in. But Dangerous had arrived at last and taken Rosa with it. She was gone now, to prison, Leon said. Tomas had recoiled at the word. Prison! What was Rosa doing in prison? His father had shrugged, as if it were commonplace. “This isn’t the first time.”
And from then, Tomas knew. Those times when his mother hadn’t been able to visit had not been from the busyness of work, but from incapability. Whenever she had been able, she had visited. But the prisons had come for her often. She had visited their cells on more than three occasions. And she was there now.
Although Rosa was never in the city, her words were still in every person’s mouth. Her writings were smuggled from the prison all the way to Leon’s house, where they were typed furiously and printed steadfastly. Her pictures did not adorn the front page of the paper anymore, but her name still burrowed its way into their articles, and remained every day on Leon’s lips. He longed for news of her, interrogating his comrades when they came around for coffees. Rosa was not the only one in prison now, Tomas learnt, listening around corners and behind closed doors. The memory of an early conversation stuck fast in his mind.
“Who is the boy?” The unknown man had growled.
Leon had answered just as fiercely. “He is my son.”
“Your son?” The unknown man intoned. “But Leon, do you realise how much danger you are in? How much danger the boy is in? You should have left him with a relative! Let him live on the streets, if you must. Anything is safer than being seen in connection with you. And the mother?”
Leon cleared his throat. “Junius.” The codename was hardly more than a whisper.
The man shook his head, breathing through his teeth. “Leon… Leon.” That was all he could say. With every day, with each newcomer to the house, with each frightened glance towards him, Tomas felt more and more like an unwanted child. Now he took to hiding whenever guests were about. Sometimes, he would not emerge even when they left. He would spend entire days in his makeshift bedroom, reading and attempting to learn what he missed from school. As the year moved on, the amount of guests increased, as did the amount of hushed whispers and references to danger. Tomas thought that he would never be safe.
In 1918, Danger came knocking finally. Tomas could not stand the wait. Danger waited outside on the apartment stairs, police officers with batons and weapons. Leon rushed madly about the house, hiding papers, ripping up others. He called Tomas’ name, gave him instructions and looked him straight in the eye. He was sixteen, he could look after himself. He would have to go to Clara Zetkin. There he would be safe, hopefully. Nothing was certain these days. And the police, with their batons swinging, their yells resounding, took Leon out of the house and to the cold prison. To meet Rosa, maybe.
Tomas ran the way to Clara Zetkin’s house, knowing only the address and her name. He had no belongings with him, as per Leon’s strict instructions, only the clothes on his back. But Clara Zetkin was kind and helpful. Her house was warm, and not a small apartment like Rosa’s or Leon’s. It was spacious and comfortable. Clara made him a coffee and bade him sit next to the fire. She shed a few tears for Leon, and more for Rosa who, she assured him, would be having a terrible time in prison. Tomas now had a warm bed and slept soundly with a warm blanket of silence wrapped around him. Worry for Leon and for Rosa seemed distant. They were adults, they could look after themselves. He was still only a child. He needed protection – the sort of protection he never had. He did not let their plight worry him for long.
Only a few months later, Rosa was back. She visited Clara first and was surprised to find Tomas. He supposed she never heard of Leon’s arrest, and soon she was shedding tears for her lover. But she was glad to see her son – pulling him close and running a hand through his hair. There were deep shadows underneath her eyes and she smelt different, very different from the woman who disappeared from sight two years before. Something else about her was different. Prison had hardened her, Tomas thought, and let loose in her a recklessness that had been hidden before. She had talked late into the night with Clara, and Tomas had listened for most of it. His mother was planning a rebellion of some sort. She would change the city, change the government, and risk her life in doing so.
A few days later, Tomas was back at her apartment. The place had not been lived in for two years, yet it still contained a little frugal warmth. There was stale coffee still in the pot from the night when his mother had been arrested. Clothes now out of fashion lay in the washing pile and plates still grimy were lined up on the sink. Tomas’ own room was not much different, except that all his clothes were now too small for him – unfortunately, because most of his belongings had been left at Leon’s house. Life at Rosa’s was hurried now, as if she had noticed a timer in her life which was about to go off. The city seemed different as well. People were always frowning and angry, as if desperately unhappy to be living where they did. Rosa was often out during the day and writing furiously by night. Now that she did not have Leon to type her words for her, Tomas wondered how she was managing. But she never seemed to lose hope. There was a spark in her eyes, a certain brightness that Tomas had only just noticed. Now she was speaking in public often and he had taken the opportunity to watch her, he noticed that it often showed when she was delivering a speech. Her words were full of flame and fury now, ordering violence, ordering no mercy to be shown. Tomas was a little afraid sometimes, especially of the power his mother seemed to wield over the people.
In the New Year, violence finally reared its ugly head. It was here to stay. If Rosa had had a second son, violence would have been it. She petted and nurtured it more than she did her own son. Brave young men with her name on their lips took to the streets with weapons in their strong hands. From their street, Tomas could hear the shots clearly. All the while, his mother would pace about the house, wringing her hands and casting desperate glances in his direction. He would need to be moved again, wouldn’t he? He couldn’t know action, couldn’t know violence and war. Everything that she created he would have to be kept away from. Why did she create such things?
Soon Leon came home with the smell of the dank prison on his clothes, in his hair. He embraced Rosa carefully and ruffled Tomas’ hand with his hair. Finally, his entire family in one house. But the atmosphere was electric, rife with excitement, danger. Names were passed between the both of them in a frenzy, and as carefully as though they were counting coins. Leon returned to his apartment with Tomas by his side and together they darted between the houses, watching for gunfire, for police, for anybody who might be a foe. In this city, that was everyone. Every moment spent at Leon’s house was a moment of waiting. Waiting for something – for news, for Rosa, for a friend, anyone. The small wireless was set up in the kitchen and tuned to the main German channel. News of arrests blared in their ears, a shuffling list of names read out that continued on and on until suddenly their waiting ended. Leon shut off the wireless and buried his head in his hands as Tomas had seen him do almost three years ago. His lover gone, taken away. To prison, perhaps. Not again, surely.
But for the next few weeks, Leon heard nothing of Rosa. None of her writings, once bravely smuggled out of a prison cell, were brought to the door. The newspaper had nothing to offer them. The radio remained in a silent protest. Rosa had disappeared from life. Leon travelled to her apartment one night and came back empty handed. There was no note from her, nothing to guide them as to her whereabouts. Only the heavy news of her arrest.
Finally, there came a night when Leon could no longer stand this waiting. He paced his bedroom, then the kitchen, then knocked on Tomas’ door. He was going out, he said, going to find Rosa, going to find his mother. He might not be back. The front door slammed. All Leon had taken with him was his coat. He did not come back that night. He was not back even when they announced the news. Rosa’s body had been found. It would still be a long while before they found Leon’s.
Tomas felt no heaviness as he accepted his new orphaned status. Hadn’t he always been an orphan? He had never had parents, only two busy stand-ins who could not afford to keep him. His parents had been fighters until the end. But fighters were born to fight, not to raise children. And here he stood, a fighter’s child. Now nobody’s child.
He left Berlin soon after his parents died. There was no point staying in this dead city, this city of violence and murder. His destination was Warsaw, back to the house of his grandparents. He would forget Rosa and Leon. Perhaps he would travel somewhere else. France or Belgium or maybe to Britain. Somewhere different, somewhere quieter than Berlin. Somewhere where the streets did not reek of blood. He did not belong in Berlin. He was a fighter’s child, but not a fighter. For all that he had inherited from Rosa and Leon, nothing was of more value to him than his pacifist’s heart.