THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY

I.

At night the fire-escape rungs
throw shadows on the nursery floor.
like prison bars There’s no escaping
the faces staring in—the bad men
coming to snatch me. No use calling—
“Don’t you dare get out of bed!” Fraulein says,
(My only comfort that special place
between my thighs. My secret. Bad girl…
“Don’t touch!” she warns. )

Four blocks north in Yorkville, New York’s German section,
Bruno Hauptmann builds a crude ladder in his attic, hides
it in the bushes near the Lindbergh’s country house.
Baby Charles has been tucked in by his nanny. Almost two,
he already has his famous father’s dimpled chin.
Later, Hauptman writes. “The child is safe in gut care,”
“We warn you for making anyding public.
Do not talk to police.” It’s March, 1932.

Five years old, what did I know? Only the smell of fear
seeping through the apartment. Fraulein and the cook
whispering in German. Peter and I sip our Ovaltine.
Fraülein knits, listening to Father Coughlin rant
on the radio. She’s covered Fritz the canary’s cage
with a dark cloth to keep him quiet.

They call it “The Crime of the Century.” Dead, the baby is,
all that time. The body, not found for two months,
buried hastily in the woods, with a fractured skull.
“The child is mit 2 women,” Hauptman writes.
“They are taking care of him. I must haf the money.”
Much later, the trial—conviction—execution.
The police had made a mess of it: no fingerprints,
only that ladder. And some boot-prints in the mud.

II.

I outgrow my Shirley Temple curls, become
a little Swiss girl with a bob. I speak German at home,
French in school. Peter prepares for his Bar Mitzvah—
I listen in, add “Shema Israel” to my nightly prayers–proud
to address God in so many languages. Sundays, I often
go to Mass with Fraülein. It’s 1937. Hitler. it seems,
doesn’t like Jews.I imagine confronting him, just us two,
my black eyes blazing with righteousness
to convince him he’s making a terrible mistake.

“America First,” that’s what Lindbergh believes—preferably
Anglo-Saxon. He admires Mussolini and Hitler, at least
for a time. Just after Kristallnacht, he writes
“We must limit to a reasonable amount
the Jewish influence…Whenever the Jewish
percentage of a total population becomes too high,
a reaction seems to invariably occur…”

Later on, my mother used to see him at parties.
He was just as attractive as everyone said—
that slow Midwestern voice, his good manners,
that deep cleft in his chin.

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