Our radio's been dead for four days. Once again we see what a dubious blessing technology really is. Machines with no intrinsic value, worthless if you can't plug them in somewhere. Bread, however, is absolute. Coal is absolute. And gold is gold whether you're in Rome, Peru, or Breslau. But radios, gas stoves, central heating, hot plates, all these gifts of the modern age-they're nothing but dead weight if the power goes out. At this moment we're marching backwards in time. Cave-dwellers.
Friday, presumably around 7:00 P.M. Went for one last quick ride on the streetcar headed for the Rathaus. The air is full of rolling and rumbling, the constant thunder of heavy guns. The woman tram conductor sounded pathetic shouting over the din. I studied the other passengers. You could read in their faces what they weren't saying out loud. We've turned into a nation of mutes. People don't talk to one another except when they're safe in their basements. When's the next time I'll ride a streetcar? Will I ever? They've been pestering us with these Class I and Class II tickets for the past several weeks, and now the news sheet says that as of tomorrow only people with the red Class III tickets will be allowed to use public transportation. That's about one in four hundred-in other words, no one, which means that's it.
A cold evening, dry faucets. My potatoes are still simmering on the tiny gas flame. I poked around and managed to fill some shopping bags with split peas, pearl barley, flour and ersatz coffee, then stashed the bags in a box. More luggage to drag down to the basement. After I'd tied it all up I realized I'd forgotten the salt. The body can't do without salt, at least not for long. And we'll probably be holed up down there for a while.
Friday, 11:00 P.M., by the light of an oil lamp in the basement, my notebook on my knees. Around 10:00 P.M. there was a series of three or four bombs. The air-raid siren started screaming. Apparently it has to be worked manually now. No light. Running downstairs in the dark, the way we've been doing ever since Tuesday. We slip and stumble. Somewhere a small hand-operated dynamo is whirring away; it casts giant shadows on the wall of the stairwell. Wind is blowing through the broken panes, rattling the blackout blinds. No one pulls them down any more-what's the point?
Shuffling feet. Suitcases banging into things. Lutz Lehmann screaming, "Mutti!" To get to the basement shelter we have to cross the street to the side entrance, climb down some stairs, then go along a corridor and across a square courtyard with stars overhead and aircraft buzzing like hornets. Then down some more stairs, through more doors and corridors. Finally we're in our shelter, behind an iron door that weighs a hundred pounds, with rubber seals around the edges and two levers to lock it shut. The official term is air-raid shelter. We call it cave, underworld, catacomb of fear, mass grave.
The ceiling is supported by a forest of rough timbers. You can smell the resin despite the closeness of the air. Every evening old Herr Schmidt-Schmidt the curtain man-launches into a structural analysis to demonstrate that the forest will hold up even if the building overhead collapses-assuming that it collapses at a certain angle and distributes its weight in a certain way. The landlord, who should know about that kind of thing, isn't around to tell us. He took off to Bad Ems and is now an American.
In any case, the people here are convinced that their cave is one of the safest. There's nothing more alien than an unknown shelter. I've been coming here for nearly three months and still feel like a stranger. Every place has its own set of quirks and regulations. In my old basement they were obsessed with having water on hand in case of fire. Wherever you turned you bumped into pots and pails and buckets and barrels full of murky fluid. And still the building burned like a torch. You might as well have spit on the fire for all that water would have done.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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