The salt mine is dark and the humid, still air makes my breath hang before me. My torch gives the stacks and boxes of stolen art long, ghost-like shadows on the walls. Surrounded by thousands of pieces of art that tell thousands of stories of Nazi plunder, my chest tightens, the adrenaline that had been coursing through my veins dropping away. The rows of art, bags of papers, and sheet covered sculptures make the vast mineshaft feel small and crowded. As I move slowly through the immense loot, I spot a drop of blood on the corner of a framed painting. My breath catches and I force myself to continue. As I walk, I wonder how many Jewish families were torn apart in the search for these paintings. I wonder how many of these paintings hold the fingerprints of people who are now dead, in mass graves or burnt at the hands of Nazis.
I pause, lingering at the end of a row, allowing myself a moment of mourning for people I never met. My mind swirls, unable to comprehend the number of people who now lie dead. I check the year on my watch – 1939 – and am reminded that concentration camps are running as I stand here, that children are being kept in dorms with no light, that clothes are being stolen from cold, dead bodies. Taking a deep breath, I distance myself from the thought and turn my attention back to the theft I am performing. I try to ignore the fact that the people I am stealing from are more than capable of ending my life.
Shining my torch in front of me, I am met with darkness. No wall, no sign of another branch of the mine, no sign of an end, just an endless labyrinth of boxes and piles of canvases and hessian sacks full of art.
Turning down a new path, I trip and drop my torch. It hits the ground, glass smashing. The sound echoes and I stop, frozen, plunged into complete darkness. I can’t see my hand in front of my face, let alone any of my surroundings. I feel around in the blindly, my hand finding a wall of stacked canvases. I crouch beside the wall, wriggling a little to get myself comfortable. My left hand makes contact with a shard of glass from my torch and I wince, stifling a cry. Holding my hand carefully, trying not to upset my wound, I press a button on my watch and the controls come to life, glowing softly. I smile. The vortex watch that brought me all the way here is as reliable as ever. I punch in a command code and speak into the watch.
“Command 3046, 300 metre radius.”
The watch beeps and projects a map of the mine on the stacked canvases. Though the canvases warp the picture, I can see a little red dot flashing just outside the entrance to the mine. A Nazi soldier. He must have come to investigate the suspicious glass-smashing-in-an-empty-salt-mine case. He is about fifty metres away and walking slowly towards me.
I punch another code into my watch and whisper, “Command 204, German.” Anything I say from now on will be translated through the watch into German and anything I hear will be interpreted into English. Now for Plan B – let the soldier know where I am. With my uninjured hand, I take the handle of my broken torch and roll it across the floor. I hear the soldier’s footsteps pause for a moment as he listens. I watch the projection as the red dot suddenly starts jogging, coming closer and closer. 30 metres away. I hear his boots crunch against the salt-crusted ground as he hurries down the labyrinth of art toward me. I tap my watch and the projection disappears. I am in darkness again. I wait a moment until his torch beam is visible over the barrier behind me. The light shakes as he moves, the glow swinging with his arm. The light grows stronger then dissipates as he scans the mine, walking slower and more cautiously like a human searchlight. As he reaches the end of my row of art, he is looking the other way, lifting a sheet to examine a statue. I stand, giving a Nazi salute and yell, “Heil Caesar!”
The soldier jumps, dousing me in light as he turns quickly to face me. His ghost-pale face shows his shock as the torch shakes in his hand. He obviously wasn’t expecting a teenage girl to be down here. He stares at me, confused. Still saluting, I check that my watch is translating. It is. I pause for a moment, right hand hovering in the air until I realise my mistake. “Oh, I mean Hitler. Heil Hitler! Moustache not laurels.”
The soldier nods, some of the shock leaving his face. He salutes me and says, “Heil Fuhrer.”
I drop my salute and adjust my posture, standing tall and confident, trying my hardest to appear official and stately. “State your name, rank and purpose, soldier!” I demand.
The soldier is frowning at me. His posture is stiff and at attention, his narrow shoulders locked in position, sharp jaw clenched, eyebrows furrowed, his head tilted to one side, as if he knows something is not quite right. “Sergeant Haas. I’m guarding the collection,” he says, and although his stance strong, his voice is unsteady.
“Good,” I nod. He leans in closer to me, blinding me with the torch. “Is there a problem, sergeant?”
Frowning, he asks, “Are you in charge here, madam?”
Crap. He’s got me. I clench my shaking hands, wincing as the glass cuts deeper into my flesh. “Yes, I am in charge,” I say.
The soldier seems unconvinced. “Really?”
“Are you questioning authority, Sergeant Haas?”
He steps back. Although he doubts my authority, he recognises my threat could be valid. He is quiet and still, his eyes fixed on me as he calculates his next move. “No, ma’am,” he mumbles.
We stand in silence for a moment, figuring each other out. I break the silence by saying, “Haas, I require your assistance.” He is still apprehensive but he’s listening.
“My torch has smashed. I need your help navigating the mine.”
He clenches his jaw and scans the ground around my feet until he sees the smashed torch. “You’re telling the truth,” he says, a little surprised.
“Of course. Would a commanding officer lie?”
“Would a woman be hired as a commanding officer?”
“Are you questioning my authority? Again?”
“How old are you? What is your name?” he asks.
“Why do you need to know?” My voice betrays me, showing my sudden fear.
“I will help you,” he says. “But I need to know who you are.” He smiles softly, his eyes warmer than the stuffy air of the mine, his face friendly in the glow of the torch.
“You won’t tell anyone I was here?”
“Of course not.”
“Lilly Spencer. I’m fifteen,” I say, holding out my right hand.
He shakes it and says, “Lilly. Nice name. What do you need help with?”
“I need a painting,” I say.
“We certainly have enough of those, but…why do you need one?”
“Will people see the painting? Will you display it?”
“Then I will help. I hate that this is all kept in here in the dark.”
“You sure no one would notice if one went missing?”
He laughs. “Look around you. There are thousands of paintings in here. You think we count them every day?”
I shrug. “Guess not.”
“I know one you may like. This way,” he says, waving for me to follow him. He leads me through the winding corridors of art. We walk in a little bubble of light to the steady rhythm of Haas’ boots crunching on the salt-crusted ground. He stops halfway down a row of canvases and shines the light on a small gold frame that stick out from its stack. He hands me the light and I hold it so he can see. He slowly lifts the stack and slides out the little gold framed canvas. We swap torch for painting and he showers the little painting in torchlight. Its smooth, careful brushstrokes show a patch of German countryside. Beautiful.
“Out of all the paintings in here,” Haas says, beaming proudly, “this is my favourite.”
I look up at him, still a little shocked to be receiving help from a Nazi guard. “Are you sure you’re okay with me taking this?” I ask.
His eyes sparkling in the half-light. “Of course.”
“You’re welcome,” he says. His expression softens a little and he says, “Lilly, can I ask you something?”
“You are not from here, are you?”
I shake my head, smiling. “No, I’m from Australia.”
“The enemy forces?” Haas laughs. “No,” he says. “I mean when?”
“The future,” I tell him, the truth echoing as he smiles at the ground.
“Good,” he says. “I’m glad there is a future. The world cannot end with this war.” He nods, and saluting. Not a Nazi salute, but a salute of the Allies, hand to head. “Heil Caesar! Goodbye Lilly Spencer. I trust you can find your own way home?”
I salute too. “I certainly can. At ease Sergeant Haas.” He beams, turns on his heels and marches back to toward the entrance, his light growing dimmer as he goes.
Ten minutes later, I have travelled seventy-eight years and thousands of kilometres. The salt mine in Nazi Germany is now a part of history and not my present as I stand in at the entrance of the National Gallery of Victoria. The night is cool and breezy, and the crisp, sweet air is a welcome contrast to the stuffy salt-mine. In the streetlight, the painting looks more beautiful than ever and my torch glass wound looks more gruesome than I’d expected. Tucking the painting under my left arm, I use my good hand to pick the lock of the gallery door. It clicks, the door swings open easily and I walk inside. The streetlights outside and the midnight moon make it surprisingly easy to see as I make my way over to the cloaking area, my footsteps echoing in the grand foyer. I duck round the desk and place the painting in a pigeon hole. Taking a map and a pen from a drawer in the desk, I write a note on the map, replace the pen in the drawer and put the note in the pigeon hole with the painting. I step back, nod at my handy work and smile, thinking of the excited chaos that will occur in the morning.
I click the door shut on my way out and punch a command code into my watch. “Command 107,” I say, then pause until I hear a whirr coming from the security camera above my head. Footage wiped.
The next morning, once I am back at home, my parents unaware of my adventure, my dad turns on the news. I watch with him as the Prime Minister’s face leaves the screen and the newsreader thanks her co-host.
“To breaking news now,” the newsreader says. “A priceless painting has been found at the National Gallery of Victoria. It is believed to have been lost during World War Two and is worth over three million dollars. Experts are bewildered by the painting’s discovery as are gallery staff, who are unsure how the painting made its way into the cloakroom. A gallery map was found next to the painting that read, ‘Courtesy of Sergeant Haas.’ Police are investigating the strange delivery and the gallery says it will be cooperating with European galleries to get more information.”
Dad shakes his head at the TV. “How the hell did it get there?”
I smile as he changes the channel. “I’m not sure they’ll ever find out.”