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There was no more street, just a path through massive piles of rubble. My jeep couldn't get through. I put it in reverse, backtracked, and turned off to the right.
But where I'd expected to find the Grosse Bergstrasse, there was just another rubble field. To the left, down near the Elbe, there were blocks of walled-up, badly bombed houses. I stopped and got out. The jeep wouldn't block traffic, because there wasn't any.
I knew this city inside out, every inch of it by heart, but there was no more city -- only ruins and a sea of bricks in all directions. Of the trees that had stood here, only blackened trunks remained. Some sprouted a few thin green twigs.
But there was life amidst the rubble. A woman wearing a man's torn jacket, a spotted apron over her belly, stood hanging up wash. She turned around, looked me over. Her face was pale. I wondered, Do I know her? She picked up the laundry basket and went into her shack.
The air was mild, soft against my skin.
Climbing back into the jeep, I asked myself, not for the first time, why had I landed here, in Hamburg, of all places? Shortly after Germany capitulated, I'd been transferred from my U.S. Army unit to the Royal British Army. They needed interpreters for special interrogations. But why didn't I ask to be stationed someplace else, say, on the Lüneburg Heath or in the Ruhr, anywhere at all, just, please, not Hamburg? And why, of all places, was I now heading toward the district of Altona? I had no job-related business there.
If this was once the Königstrasse, then in a few hundred meters I could turn left onto the Hoheschulstrasse...where the Christianeum was...where Dr. Knoppe used to torment us with Latin verbs and make us translate endless passages from Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars....
I suddenly remembered a delicious taste, a special fragrance....My mouth began to water. And I almost heard the noise of cars rushing by on what had been a well-paved street....These sharp memories took me back twelve years, to recess...sneaking out of the schoolyard, me and Armin Hillmann...dashing across the intersection to the bakery on the Mühlenstrasse for our favorite midmorning snack -- sweet, crumbly Franzbrötchen, a Hamburg specialty.
Now there was no more Hoheschulstrasse, no more Mühlenstrasse, and nothing left of that bakery, either. Just another path through rubble.
I followed it past makeshift barracks with tin roofs, past here and there a wooden cross and wilted flowers marking a grave. Now the air was thick and heavy. After I'd walked a few meters, my tongue felt coated with dust.
What was I looking for? I knew I wouldn't find the house.
I could have driven on, to the Flottbeker Chaussee. That's where my family had lived.
It wasn't a clear thought, but deep inside myself I knew that whatever I was looking for, I didn't really want to find.
Among the few houses left halfway standing was one I recognized. In its basement was a bar called the Family Corner. Armin's father had sat here sometimes -- once a week to be exact, on Tuesdays, when the dive where he hung out the rest of the time was closed.
No more door with glass panels. All there was were wooden planks nailed shut. I stepped around some rubble to a side door and walked in.
Obviously, the Family Corner had not done any business for some time. But thanks to residues of beer, schnapps, sweat, and cigarettes lodged in the furniture and woodwork, the place still smelled like a dive.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a slightly yellowed sign on the wall beside the coatrack: JEWS NOT INVITED.
In front of the bar crouched a heavyset man around fifty, hammering a bedframe together.
I didn't know him. Maybe the place had changed owners.
"Closed," he said in English. "No beer."
"Do you know what happened to the tenants in number seventeen?" I asked.
The man looked at me. People weren't used to a British officer speaking German.
"Yes, diagonally across from here."
He went to the window and stared out at the wreckage. Then he shrugged. "No idea. Everyone went into the air-raid shelter when the bombs were coming down."
"Moved away. Never came back. For what?" He looked at me more closely. "Don't I know you?" he asked. "Did you live on this street?"
"A little farther to the west," I answered. "But I spent a lot of time in this neighborhood."
He clearly wanted to get back to his work.
I asked, "Is there any way I can get through here to the Elbe?"
He looked past me toward the street.
"With that jeep? You'd have to drive all the way around to the town hall. Here in Altona..." He shook his head and pounded another nail into the bedframe.
"Thanks," I said. I was already at the door when I noticed the sign again and turned back to him. "You forgot to take down the sign."
He rose to his feet with a groan. "What sign?"
He didn't know what to say. Since I made no move to leave, he went behind the bar, got a screwdriver, went over to the sign, and started to unscrew it.
I waved good-bye and left.
I crossed the street to number 17, where Armin had lived. I'd been here countless times. It was like a second home to me.
We two were an odd pair of friends. I lived on the Flottbeker Chaussee, a pinnacle of elegance toward which long stretches of lesser town houses aspired. My father was a highly regarded lawyer. We had two housemaids, a cook, and a nursemaid when I was little. The nursemaid played with me in our garden and would have stayed on even after I started school if I hadn't resisted strongly.
Whereas Armin lived here. A ruin now. I remembered the street the way it had been, narrow and winding, with fish smells wafting from the harbor. Dockworkers, fish-factory workers, and people out of work who couldn't afford to feed their families lived here. Barely. At night whores too old to drum up business on the Reeperbahn stood around in courtyard entrances and alleys.
Armin's father was out of work. He sat in his regular dive for hours on end with his beer glass in front of him, not drinking up so he wouldn't have to order another.
Like most people in this dirt-poor quarter, he was a "Red," an old Social Democrat, and none too pleased when his son made friends with a "rich brat" from the Flottbeker Chaussee. He liked it even less that we were passionately for "the movement." That's what the Nazis were called back then, before they came to power.
I walked back to the jeep. The ground was strewn with bits of broken glass, chunks of cement, pieces of rusty metal. A green shard caught the sunlight....I didn't let myself think back seven years to that November night when whole streets were littered with glass. No, I wasn't ready to relive Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. I thought back to only one glass splinter. Armin found it on the floor of the holding cell in the Victoriastrasse police station. "Look at that," he'd whispered.
And I remembered what my wrist looked like when we were in that holding cell: scratched and swollen, bright blood pushing through, forming little drops that stuck to the skin.
"There," Armin had said. "It worked."
The air smelled of coal. A biting wind rose from the river, drove the thin snow over the pavement, and swept the smoke from the chimneys down into the courtyard.
Daniel kept looking left and right. It was so cold, his eyes were watering. The teardrops froze hard on his cheeks. He wiped his face with his glove, and then he heard something -- faint, still far away. It sounded like marching. He knew right then that they were headed for trouble. Everything that could go wrong would. But all he said, not very loud, was, "This is crazy."
Armin's cap was pulled low over his face, his leather satchel tucked under one arm. In the dim light of the streetlamp he really did look like a dockworker heading home from the late shift. No one would have guessed that there were paintbrushes in the satchel. He was Daniel's age, just thirteen, but tall and sturdy. On him, the disguise looked convincing. On Daniel, not, because he was smaller, skinnier, could still pass for eleven and travel half-fare on the U-Bahn. The rumpled jacket and workman's cap somehow looked all wrong on him. Besides, Armin had stuck him with the thankless job of carrying the paint bucket again.
Armin was already at the next street corner. He pushed his cap up a bit, took a casual look around, came sauntering back, and turned into the courtyard. The front building had people living in it; the buildings in the back were dilapidated, empty.
"This is crazy," Daniel said, louder. "And I'm freezing."
Armin snorted, went over to the crumbling sidewall.
Twelve brave Nazi fighters had lain dead in a street near here one Sunday in July last year. Daniel thought of them now. Again he looked carefully in all directions. Then, struggling with the heavy paint bucket, he sighed and followed Armin.
It really was insanity to go painting on walls here. But their honor was at stake, it had to be done, after what had happened earlier.
That morning some boys from the Communist Youth had come to the Christianeum. They'd stood at the entrance and passed out cheap-looking leaflets with dastardly slurs against Hitler's private army, the SA. Such provocation could not go unanswered.
The Christianeum, after all, was an elite Gymnasium, attended by the sons of industrialists and state officials. Almost everyone in Daniel's class wanted to join the Hitler Jugend. And almost everyone thought that retaliatory action should be taken. Only what?
Peter Mehlhorn, class spokesman, had proposed: "Let's march over to the public high school this afternoon. We'll give those hoodlums a thrashing."
"Good idea," Armin said. "Except they don't have school on Saturdays."
Then a discussion started that would have gone on forever if the bell hadn't rung and recess hadn't ended. There were too many opinions, too many sissies, Armin told Daniel on the way to class. Too many mama's boys, scared of the least little brawl. And one Jew, Julius Cohn, whose father was a watchmaker in the Grosse Bergstrasse. "Nothing wrong with Julius, except he's for the German Nationalists, and they're a bunch of bourgeois decadents who don't like Hitler," Armin scoffed. "Typical," he said to Daniel. "Lots of talk and nothing comes of it."
He'd made up his mind: "It's up to us to do something. We'll be famous, you and me."
Daniel didn't like the idea. But he couldn't think of a way to argue against it without seeming a "bourgeois decadent" himself.
"We'll paint," Armin said.
Daniel took a deep breath. Going out into the night disguised as grown-ups, painting swastikas on walls, was a big test of courage.
They'd done it before, he and Armin, dressed as a couple on a date (Armin's idea, and naturally, Daniel had had to be the girl). They'd gotten away with it. A Schupo out patrolling had passed right by and not suspected anything.
"This time we'll paint in the Johannisstrasse," Armin said.
The Johannisstrasse was in the working-class district, ruled by Reds. The Nazis called it "Little Moscow." To paint on walls there was asking for trouble, Daniel knew. But holding on to Armin's friendship was worth any risk.
That was why he'd asked and asked, pestering his mother till she finally gave in. "All right, you can sleep over at Armin's."
Just before midnight they'd put on some old clothes of Armin's father's and slipped out.
Of course, there were always police patrols. But Armin knew secret byways, dim-lit, steeply rising streets on which you were unlikely to run into any Schupos.
Entering the passageway that led into the courtyard, Daniel saw that the walls were covered with posters, mostly of hammers and sickles, and some with the Social Democrats' white arrows on red backgrounds, and their slogan: A VOTE FOR HITLER IS A VOTE FOR WAR.
Again he heard the sound of marching and felt chilled to the bone. Suddenly Armin's casual manner seemed absurd. It made him angry.
Nevertheless, he followed and set the paint bucket down in the farthest corner of the courtyard. It was pitch dark back there, so dark that they could hardly see each other. Daniel hoped that no one else could see them either.
Armin kneeled down, tried to open the paint bucket, couldn't. So he used a paintbrush handle to pry the lid up. But the wood of the handle splintered.
"Who rammed this lid down so hard?" he asked.
"You, of course," Daniel said.
Armin let his breath out, loud. Then, looking serious, he groped for his pocketknife, opened it, and stuck the blade under the lid.
"Even the paint is frozen stuck," Daniel observed.
"Quit griping," Armin said.
Finally he got the lid off. He wiped the white paint off the blade, snapped it shut, and pocketed the knife. Then he dipped a brush into the bucket, reached up high, and slapped a thick stroke onto the rough wall.
"Don't get the swastika backward again," Daniel said.
Armin didn't answer.
Copyright © 2000 by CARLSEN Verlag GmbH, Hamburg
Translation Copyright © 2004 by Simon & Schuster