Not Just a Game
This is the latest novel from Doug Zipes. In this riveting story, three generations of Olympic athletes attempt to survive monumental challenges in the shadow of Hitler and during a rebirth of Nazism.
It is 1936 as track star Dietrich Becker trains for the Berlin Olympics. Supported by his wife and an unknown benefactor, Dietrich is hiding a dangerous secret: he is Jewish. But when he unexpectedly loses to the legendary Jesse Owens, a humiliated Dietrich crumbles under overwhelming pressure and makes a decision that changes everything.
Thirty-six years later, Dietrich’s son, Adam, assistant head of the 1972 Israeli Olympic team, travels to Munich, where eleven Israeli athletes including one of his friends, fencing coach Levi Frankel, are murdered by Islamic terrorists. Eventually Adam’s daughter, Kirsten, is taught to fence by Levi’s widow and sets her sights on the 2016 Olympics. When she travels to Rio with the Israeli team just as Nazism is reborn, Kirsten and a French fencer become intrigued by rumors that Hitler fled WWII to South America. After visiting Bariloche, Argentina to investigate, they explore Hitler’s house and find the priceless Amber Room. As her journey leads her back to the Olympics, Kirsten soon discovers she is fighting not just to win gold but also for her life.
Preview from Chapter One
TEL AVIV, JUNE 1989
“It’s a girl! Ten tiny fingers and toes and a beautiful face,” Adam told his mother as he drove her from the assisted living community to the Ichilov Hospital in central Tel Aviv. “Your new granddaughter has your smile, complete with dimples, Dannie’s blonde hair, and my blue eyes.” Adam thought for a moment. “Her hair’s more red
than blonde. She’s the prettiest baby ever.”
Traffic was light. He glanced at his mother. She had lost more weight in the past month. Or was it two months since he had seen her? Not remembering triggered guilt pangs, but his law practice was so busy. He’d taken her to the best heart doctors in Israel, but he thought maybe he should take her to the States. Visit Mayo or Hopkins? He owed her so much. How could he ever repay it? A granddaughter was a start, and that made him feel good.
Gretchen laughed, a happy sound. “So says every father. But finally I get to hold my grandchild,” she said, rocking her folded arms back and forth, fingers twitching. “I’ve been waiting for this a long time.”
Adam smiled. “It’s never too late.”
“Seemed you took forever,” Gretchen said.
He nodded. No need to explain the difficulties of a middle-aged man trying to have a baby with a young wife.
“And what will you name her?” Gretchen asked, getting out of the car with Adam’s assistance.
“We haven’t decided yet.”
Almost eighty, Gretchen was frail, her heart failing since the second heart attack. Her cheekbones, always prominent, now seemed like angular bumps in a fragile, sunken face. When Adam had asked if she was getting enough to eat, she laughed. “You know the story about the Jewish mother waiting for her son to call?” He shook his head. “She lost weight because she stopped eating so she wouldn’t have a mouthful of food when the phone rang.”
Adam had moved her to a residential complex two years earlier so she could receive around-the-clock attention. Though she dressed with care, clothes once a perfect fit now hung from her bony frame.
Adam had a curbside wheelchair ready. He eased Gretchen in and pushed her to the maternity wing. Broad shouldered and trim from daily workouts, Adam moved with an athlete’s grace, maneuvering the chair along a crowded hallway. His cobalt blue eyes and thick, dark hair still turned heads as young nurses walked by.
At Dannie’s room, Gretchen insisted on standing. Adam helped her out of the chair, holding it steady with one hand, the other cupped under her elbow. She walked slowly to the bed where Dannie cradled her daughter at her breast. The baby was a tiny pink bundle, only her silky reddish-blonde hair showing. Dannie’s cherub face, rounded from the pregnancy, showed exhaustion from the twelve-hour labor.
When Adam had left this morning to get his mother, Dannie’s blonde hair had been soaked with sweat, hanging in wet strands clinging to her forehead. He had passed two nurses as they entered her room with fresh towels, washcloths, and a change of bed clothes. Dannie now looked beauty parlor fresh with pink lipstick and rosy cheeks, wearing a soft white robe. She glowed with a new mother’s look of love and patted a place beside her for Gretchen to sit.
“We were expecting a boy, so we’re not quite prepared for this,” Dannie said. “We already painted her room blue.” Dannie moved over to make room on the bed. The baby lost her nipple and squirmed, grunting until she found it again.
Gretchen sat on the edge of the bed and caught her breath. Her dress hiked up, showing knobby knees and varicose veins. She quickly rearranged it to cover them. After a moment, she leaned over and stroked soft cheeks busy puckering and relaxing at Dannie’s breast.
She turned to her son. “How about Kirsten, after your grandmother?”
Adam looked to Dannie for a response.
“Wonderful idea.” Dannie smiled and nodded. “This hungry little bundle,” she said, caressing the baby’s downy crown in the midst of slurping and suckling noises, “will be Kirsten.”
“I like that name,” Adam said, pulling up a chair beside the bed.
“What was your grandmother like?” Dannie asked Adam.
Adam shrugged and looked at his mother. “I don’t remember much. Mom?”
“She was Austrian and lived in some small town near the German border. But I don’t know for sure,” Gretchen said. “I know she went crazy before she died and was buried near her home. It was in the early 1930s, before the war.” She turned to Adam. “Your dad was training for the ’36 Olympics at the time. Dietrich didn’t talk much about the funeral when he came home. There was no inheritance, so he buried her, and that was it.
We never talked about her again.”
“What about your grandfather?” Dannie asked.
Adam again looked at his mother.
“I only know he left your grandmother while she was still pregnant, before your father was even born. Just disappeared and never returned.”
“A one-night stand?” Dannie asked.
“I guess something like that. She never married. That I know.”
“But Grandmother Kirsten was Jewish, yes?” Adam knew the mother’s religion determined the child’s. One could always be certain who the mother was.
“Of course, which is why both you and your dad were circumcised,” Gretchen said. “And your father being an Olympian was more important to the Germans than the fact we were Jews, so we were protected during the war.”
Gretchen shook her head, as if to clear it of these memories. “Enough with the past. This little bundle”—she patted the baby’s freshly diapered bottom—“is all about the future.”
“I agree. In fact…” Adam let the sentence hang and sat on the edge of his chair, watching Dannie cradling Kirsten, now fast asleep.
“What?” Dannie and Gretchen asked.
Adam tried to hide a grin. He stood and walked about the small room. He picked up the picture of his new daughter cradled by Dannie, already printed by the hospital photographer and set in a silver frame on the small night table. A beautiful touch, he thought, especially if it were a free perk. He had his doubts.
Looking at the picture, he said, almost to himself, “Suppose—just suppose—this little bundle became an Olympic athlete.”
Dannie knew where her husband was going. She smiled. “A fencer?”
“I don’t understand. You two are moving too fast for me to keep up,” Gretchen said.
Adam set the picture down, went over to his mother, and put his hand on her shoulder. “The Olympics, Mom. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Kirsten grew up to become an Olympian? For the Munich athletes and for my father—her grandfather Dietrich.” He pointed at his new daughter. “Maybe a fencer, to celebrate Levi Frankel’s life, or a runner, for Father.” He knew it was far-fetched, planning an Olympic career for a daughter not even a day old, but he couldn’t help dreaming. Maybe it would help lessen his pain, his guilt.
“Do you suppose Sharon would teach her?” Dannie asked.
A big smile lit Gretchen’s face as the enormity of his vision sank in. “Dare we even think about it? Dream about it? Your father would’ve liked that, Adam. Fencer or track star, it doesn’t matter. An Olympian medal winner, that’s what Dietrich would’ve wanted, what would’ve mattered to him. Gold, silver, or bronze. Any medal would liberate that man’s tortured soul.”
Gretchen bowed her head, her forehead touching the pink blanket that swaddled her granddaughter. Softly, she said, “Please, dear God, let this little bundle of joy accomplish that. Touch Kirsten with your special love so she can redeem her grandfather’s reputation and make her father proud.”
“Amen,” Adam and Dannie said together.