I keep wandering around these three rooms, but I can't find any peace. I have systematically searched every single cupboard and drawer for anything usable, in other words, something to eat, drink, or burn. Unfortunately, there isn't much. Frau Weiers, who used to clean the place, must have beaten me to it. These days everything is up for grabs. People are no longer closely tied to things; they no longer distinguish clearly between their own property and that of others.
I found a letter wedged inside a drawer, addressed to the real tenant. I was ashamed for reading it, but I read it all the same. A passionate love letter, which I flushed down the toilet. (Most of the time we still have water.) Heart, hurt, love, desire - how foreign, how distant these words sound now. Evidently a sophisticated, discriminating love life requires three square meals a day. My sole concern as I write these lines is my stomach. All thinking and feeling, all wishes and hopes begin with food.
Two hours later. The gas is running on a tiny, dying flicker. The potatoes have been cooking for hours. The most miserable potatoes in the country, good only for distilling into liquor, they turn to mush and taste like cardboard. I swallowed one half - raw. I've been stuffing myself since early this morning. Went to Bolle's to use up the pale-blue milk coupons Gerd sent me for Christmas. Not a moment too soon - I got the last drops. The saleswoman had to tilt the can; she said there'd be no more milk coming into Berlin. That means children are going to die.
I drank a little of the milk right there on the street. Then, back at home, I wolfed down some porridge and chased it with a crust of bread. In theory I've eaten better than I have in ages. In practice, the hunger is gnawing away at me like a savage beast. Eating just made me hungrier than ever. I'm sure there's some scientific explanation. Something about food stimulating the digestive juices and making them crave more. No sooner do they get going than the limited supply is already digested and they start to rumble.
Rummaging through the few books owned by the tenant of this apartment (where I also found the blank notebook I'm using to write this), I turned up a novel. The setting is English aristocratic, with sentences like: "She cast a fleeting glance at her untouched meal, then rose and left the table." Ten lines later I found myself magnetically drawn back to that sentence. I must have read it a dozen times before I caught myself scratching my nails across the print, as if the untouched meal - which had just been described in detail - were really there and I could physically scrape it out of the book. A sure sign of insanity. Onset of mild delusions brought on by lack of food. I'm sorry I don't have Hamsun's Hunger to bone up on the subject. Of course I couldn't read it even if I hadn't been bombed out, since somebody snatched my copy right out of my shopping bag over two years ago in the U-Bahn. It had a raffia cover; evidently the pickpocket mistook it for a ration card wallet. Poor man! He must have been a very disappointed thief! I'm sure Hamsun would enjoy hearing that story.
Morning gossip at the baker's: "When they get here they'll go through the apartments and take whatever they can find to eat... Don't expect them to give us a thing... They've worked it all out; the Germans are going to have to starve for two months... People in Silesia are already running around the woods digging up roots... Children are dying... Old people are eating grass like animals."
So much for the vox populi - no one knows anything for sure. There's no Völkischer Beobachter on the stairs anymore. No Frau Weiers coming up to read me the headlines about rape over breakfast. "Old Woman of Seventy Defiled. Nun Violated Twenty-Four Times." (I wonder who was counting.) That's exactly what they sound like, too, those headlines. Are they supposed to spur the men of Berlin to protect and defend us women? Ridiculous. Their only effect is to send thousands more helpless women and children running out of town, jamming the roads heading west, where they're likely to starve or die under fire from enemy planes. Whenever she read the paper Frau Weiers's eyes would get big and glaze over. Something in her actually enjoyed that brand of horror. Either that or her unconscious was just happy it hadn't happened to her. Because she is afraid; I know for a fact she wanted to get away. I haven't seen her since the day before yesterday.
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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