Friday, April 20, 1945, 4:00 P.M.
It's true: the war is rolling toward Berlin. What
was yesterday a distant rumble has now become a constant roar. We breathe the
din; our ears are deafened to all but the heaviest guns. We've long given up
trying to figure out where they are positioned. We are ringed in by barrels,
and the circle is growing smaller by the hour.
Now and then whole hours pass in eerie silence. Then all of a sudden you remember that it's spring. Clouds of lilac perfume drift over from untended gardens and waft through the charred ruins of apartment houses. Outside the cinema, the acacia stump is foaming over with green. The gardeners must have snatched a few minutes between sirens to dig at their allotment plots, because there's freshly turned earth around the garden sheds up and down Berlinerstrasse. Only the birds seem suspicious of this particular April: there's not a single sparrow nesting in the gutters of our roof.
A little before three o'clock the newspaper wagon drove up to the kiosk. Two dozen people were already waiting for the deliveryman, who immediately vanished in a flurry of hands and coins. Gerda, the concierge's daughter, managed to grab a few "evening editions" and let me have one. It's not a real paper anymore, just a kind of news sheet printed on two sides and damp on both. The first thing I read as I went on my way was the Wehrmacht report. New place-names: Müncheberg, Seelow, Buchholz - they sound awfully close, like from somewhere in the Brandenburg Mark. I barely glanced at the news from the western front. What does it matter to us now? Our fate is rolling in from the east and it will transform the entire climate, like another Ice Age. People ask why, tormenting themselves with pointless questions. But I just want to focus on today, the task at hand.
Little groups milling around the kiosk, people with pasty faces, murmuring.
"Impossible, who would have thought it would come to this?"
"There's not one of us here didn't have at least a shred of hope."
"Nothing the likes of us can do about it."
The talk turns to western Germany: "They've got it good. For them it's over and done with." No one uses the word Russians anymore. It refuses to pass our lips.
Back in the attic apartment. I can't really call it a home; I no longer have a home. Not that the furnished room I was bombed out of was really mine either. All the same, I'd filled it with six years of my life. With my books and pictures and the hundreds of things you accumulate along the way. My starfish from that last peacetime summer on Norderney. The kilim Gerd brought me from Persia. My dented alarm clock. Photos, old letters, my zither, coins from twelve different countries, a piece of knitting that I'd started. All the souvenirs, the old skins and shells-the residue and warm debris of lived-in years.
Now that it's gone and all I have is a small suitcase with a handful of clothes, I feel naked, weightless. Since I own nothing, I can lay claim to everything - this unfamiliar apartment, for instance. Well, it's not entirely unfamiliar. The owner is a former colleague, and I was a frequent guest before he was called up. In keeping with the times, we used to barter with each other: his canned meat from Denmark for my French cognac, my French soap for the stockings he had from Prague. After I was bombed out I managed to get hold of him to tell him the news, and he said I could move in here. Last I heard he was in Vienna with a Wehrmacht censorship unit. Where he still is now...? Not that attic apartments are much in demand these days. What's more, the roof leaks as many of the tiles have been shattered or blown away.
Excerpted from A Woman In Berlin by Anonymous. Copyright © 2006. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, Incorporated. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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