The first winter of the war was bitterly cold. The most frigid temperatures in decades gripped the city. In January, thermometers plummeted to minus twenty degrees, and people joked grimly that Berlin had been traded for Siberia in the nonaggression pact with the Soviets. But by the end of the month, humor was running thin, even in Berlin, along with the coal supply. It was the sort of cold that followed you inside, that searched your clothes for gaps and penetrated you slowly, until it crept into your heart and chilled your blood.
In the bedroom, she would huddle for warmth with her husband, but when her hand ventured to explore the territory below his waist, he would shrug away her touch. "Sigrid, please. I have a long day ahead of me tomorrow" was his usual response. Afterward, she would stare through the frigid darkness above their bed until sleep smothered her.
"Is it because of the miscarriage?" she finally asked him one night.
"I must get my sleep, Sigrid," was his eventual reply. "And so must you. We'll talk about this later."
But of course they never did. Since the war had started in Poland, Kaspar's work hours had been extended at the bank, and he had become moody and silent. Several men of the staffhad already been called up, and he was sure that his turn would come soon. Sigrid tried to picture him in uniform, with a rifle in his hands, but the picture seemed too absurd. He was nearly thirty- five. Surely there were plenty of younger men the army would prefer. And though this rarely happened, Kaspar's mother agreed with her. "You have important duties to fulfill at the bank," the old woman declared confidently. "The government understands that we must keep some of our best men at home in order to keep things running." At which point Kaspar would observe them both from an interior distance, and politely request more coffee in his cup.
The teaser curtain rings open, and the lights dissolve. Sigrid removes her scarf. The show begins with footage of a military chorus launching into the "Horst Wessel Lied." A jumble of voices rises in response from the auditorium. Audience members are encouraged to join in the singing of patriotic songs. That's what the sign in the lobby reads, but with no one around to report her, Sigrid remains silent. After the numbing shock of the Sixth Army's defeat at Stalingrad an army that had smashed through France only a few years before the Party's been engineering an upswing of patriotic fervor. More flags, more slogans, more posters smothering the walls. But under the surface, an acidic dread is eating away at the official convictions concerning victory. In the first week of February, regular radio broadcasting had been suddenly preempted by a Wagnerian funeral march. Reichsmarschall Goering made a solemn announcement from the Air Ministry. The men of the Sixth Army were said to have fought to the last bullet. A few weeks later Goebbels broadcast from the Sportspalast, and declared that the only answer to their sacrifice was Total War. I ask you: Do you want total war? If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even yet imagine? The audience in the Sportspalast roared with frenzied ardor. But most Berliners responded with bewildered silence. Stalingrad was supposed to have been the greatest victory for the Wehrmacht since the fall of Paris. The Red Army on the Volga was reported to be in tatters. How then could this have happened? Three hundred thousand German men dead or taken prisoner. How did it happen? A question often posed in a whisper but left unanswered.
A panic of newsreel images shutters across the screen: troops leaping over shell craters, a tank crushing a stone wall. The onslaught toward victory in the East continues, at least in the movie houses. She breathes in solemnly. Kaspar is there now. He was conscripted two months before the Aufmarsch into Russia, and is now stalled somewhere to the south of Moscow with a few hundred thousand other German husbands. She thinks about him nightly as she goes to sleep. Fears that he is suffering in the elements, but cannot quite wish him in the bed beside her. Does that make her as cold as the Russian winter? Maybe just her heart, she thinks.
Excerpted from City of Women by David R Gillham. Copyright © 2012 by David R Gillham. Excerpted by permission of Amy Einhorn Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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