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The Berliners MAG
The soft knock on the door disturbs my reading. My jumbled, half-absorbed thoughts rush to nervousness. Anxiously I put the book down and lift the black curtain from the window. I blink with surprise.
Hermann is standing on my doorstep. He is a big man, a shop owner. He has a loud sort of authority, but he is kind. He half turns and looks behind him, then knocks quietly again.
Where are the old days? The moments of before when he would barge in and announce with happiness a new event, the birth of a child, a large sale of bread, a visit from a relative? Where were the times when he could fill the room with his huge frame and deep laugh? Where were the days we drank a toast to each other's health and sang lonely songs over the bottle? Where were those moments when he had gazed happily at my little boy, Hans, and declared himself a surrogate uncle?
That is all in the past, and Hans is dead. My only child, too young to die, is lying in some Russian field, frozen underneath the never-ending snowfall.
I open the door halfway, “Hermann!” I call with all pretense of happiness, knowing as he does that this is not a happy time. He nods mutely in reply, not smiling. His hands twist his cap.
“May I come in?” he asks nervously, glancing down the street. I let him in and close the door. The hall is dimly lit, but he looks old and haggard, still heavy, but not healthy.
“What is this about?” I whisper. “Are you in trouble?” The last time he was here he came with a leaflet from an organization called The White Rose. I had had to put him out then, telling him not to return with that. I should have reported him, but I couldn't. Still, one cannot be seen with these things. But now, now it is three years later and news of defeat is everywhere. When Hermann doesn't reply, I lead him into the sitting room.
The sound of an Allied plane shooting overhead. We no longer flinch. Here in Berlin the bombs are part of life. I roll one of my last cigarettes and offer it to Hermann. He shakes his head. The drone of the engine fades, and I give him a bitter smile. “If one of these Americans ever lands on my roof, remind me to shake his hand for fulfilling the Fuehrer's promise: ‘Give me five years and I will give you a Germany you won't recognize,'” I quote.
Hermann does not laugh.
In the dim room, I light my cigarette from a candle stub; matches are too precious to waste. In the flickering light Hermann's face is tense, his faint stubble is gray. I wait for him to speak, but he says nothing. We watch the dying candles, listen to the hum of planes, do anything but look at each other. In this time and place, people tend to avoid one another's eyes.
He takes a breath, a tired sigh floats from him and with it, words. “I have been hiding a Jew in my basement,” he says quietly.
The thought, the very idea makes me turn, expecting some sort of poor joke, but his brown eyes are serious. “Dear God!” I exclaim, and cannot think of anything else to say. “Dear God ….”
Hermann stands, his weight hanging on his body. “I think someone knows,” he whispers, his back to me. He has a hole in his jacket. Poor Hermann never had a wife to darn his clothes. He wrings his hat in his hands. He will not look at me. “There were soldiers on the streets outside earlier. I invented an excuse, and they went away. But some were suspicious. What if they come back? I can't. I mustn't allow them to take the Jew.” He turns to me, sitting abruptly. Our eyes meet.
“Do you understand what could happen to you for doing this?”
Hermann closes his eyes momentarily. “Her name is Sarah,” he says softly.
Another plane goes overhead. A candle sputters. A Jew hiding in a downtown Berlin shop. We are silent for long minutes.
Then Hermann speaks. “He never even mentioned the Jews in the beginning. He spoke of ours being a great country, of being united.” His voice is hoarse. He looks at me. “That was our downfall,” he whispers, “wanting to be special.”
“Hermann,” I begin. “Listen to me, Nazis are everywhere. The Americans and British are bombing us. The Russians are coming. What do you expect to do?” Hermann picks up the book I was reading.
“You read often,” he says quietly. I say nothing. “All Quiet on the Western Front,” he murmurs. “They burned this book, didn't they?” I turn away, staring at the fireplace, the empty grate, and above it, Hans' picture. “You know the penalty for owning a banned book,” Hermann reminds me. “And yet you read.” He puts the book down.
We look at each other.
“The attic …,” I say hesitantly. “The attic is filthy, but she can stay there. No soldier would bother searching it.” Hermann smiles for the first time. He looks even more tired, if that is possible, but relieved.
“Thank you,” he whispers. “I will deliver her tomorrow.” He turns in the doorway. “I'm sorry about all of this.” He nods to Hans' picture. “Sorry that such things came to be. But we all have our ways, do we not? You read banned books and I hide Jews. After this is over, we will have nothing to fear.”
But Hermann never saw it when it was over. A month after Sarah arrived he was killed. I could see his shop from my window, I saw them in their uniforms, their tall, shiny boots kicking open his door. Hitler's men, those Nazis, dragged Hermann out in his old, battered coat. I saw the hole in the arm, worn through because Hermann never had a wife to mend his clothes. They brought him out into the street.
And that was where they shot him.
I was watching from the window, thinking of Hans and Sarah and all of the people who suffer because of someone else, thinking of Hermann dying in the street. And the thought came: This is not Germany anymore.
I told Sarah about Hermann. She cried. And then I went to my study. The papers were there. In chaos, it is always easier to get a hold of such documents in advance, and the forger I know is good. I had had them made out so if things got bad I had a quick escape. The papers I handed her were passports.
I saw her off a few weeks ago. And today, I received a letter. Somehow it made its way through all the hell the postal system becomes during war. I go to the window to read it. Even candles are hard to find now. We are starving, behaving like desperate rats now, we Germans. There are no Aryans here, no superior race.
The letter is short. All that is written on the thin piece of stationary is Thank you for the papers. I am safe. I put the letter up by Hans' picture. The glass has cracked from where the frame was knocked off the wall during a bombing. But I am lucky my house is still standing, even in the ashes of everything else.
I think I will read some today and then perhaps I will open the bottle of wine I have stored away for a special occasion. After all, what is life but a celebration? And I will wait to hear the sounds of the Russians. They are close. They will be here by nightfall.
And so this evening I will probably touch my son's picture one last time. I will hold it tight and put Sarah's letter in my pocket. And then I might just go out into the street to the spot where they killed Hermann.
And I might just shoot myself.
But who knows? Life is so unpredictable, so strange. Just when you think something won't happen, it does. Who knows what I will do today? Certainly not me. But we all have our ways, now don't we?
There really is nothing to fear.