Frau Weiers told me that in her shelter it's the lungs. At the first sound of a bomb they all bend forward and take very shallow breaths, their hands pressing against their bodies. Someone told them this would help prevent blast lungs. Here in this basement they're all fixated on the walls. They sit with their backs against the outside wall - except in front of the ventilation flap. At the first explosion they move on to the next obsession: cloths - everyone has a cloth handy to wrap around their mouths and noses and then tie behind their heads. I haven't seen that in any other basement. I don't know how the cloths are supposed to help. Still, if it makes people feel better!
Apart from these ticks it's the usual cave dwellers on the usual chairs, which range from kitchen stools to brocade armchairs. We're mostly upper- and lower-middle class, with a sprinkling of workers. I look around and take stock:
First is the baker's wife, two plump red cheeks swaddled in a lambskin collar. Then the pharmacist's widow, who finished a training course in first aid and who sometimes lays out cards on two chairs pushed together and reads them for the other women. Frau Lehmann, whose husband is missing in the East and who is now a pillow for the sleeping infant on her arm and four-year-old Lutz asleep on her lap, his shoelaces dangling. The young man in gray trousers and horn-rimmed glasses who on closer inspection turns out to be a young woman. Three elderly sisters, all dressmakers, huddled together like a big black pudding. The refugee girl from Königsberg in East Prussia, wearing the few old rags she's managed to piece together. Then there's Schmidt, who was bombed out and reassigned here, Schmidt the curtain wholesaler without curtains, always chatting away despite his years. The bookselling husband and wife who spent several years in Paris and often speak French to each other in low voices ...
I've just been listening to a woman of forty who was bombed out of her home in Adlershof and moved in here with her mother. Apparently a high-explosive bomb buried itself in her neighbor's garden and completely demolished her own house, which she had bought with her savings. The pig she'd been fattening up was flung all the way into the rafters. "It wasn't fit to eat after that." The married couple next door to her also met their maker. People retrieved what parts of them they could from the rubble of the building and the mess in the garden. The funeral was very nice. An all-male choir from the Tailors' Guild sang at the graveside. But everything ended in confusion when the sirens cut in right during the "Rock of Ages" and the grave diggers had to practically throw the coffin in the ground. You could hear the contents bumping about inside. And now for the punch line, the narrator chuckling in advance, although so far her story hadn't been all that funny: "And imagine, three days later their daughter is going through the garden looking for anything of use, and right behind the rain barrel she stumbles on one of her Papa's arms."
A few people give a brief laugh, but most don't. I wonder: did they bury the arm as well?
Continuing with my inventory: Across from me is an elderly gentleman, a businessman, wrapped in blankets and sweating feverishly. Next to him is his wife, who speaks with a sharp Hamburg s, and their eighteen-year-old daughter, whom they call Stinchen, with the same s. Then comes the blonde who was recently reassigned here and whom no one knows, holding hands with her lodger, whom no one knows either. The scrawny retired postmaster and his wife, who is forever lugging around an artificial leg made of nickel, leather and wood - a partial Pietà since its owner, their one-legged son, is (or was, nobody knows for sure) in a military hospital in Breslau. The hunchbacked doctor of chemistry from the soft drink company, slumped over in his armchair like a gnome. Then the concierge's family: a mother, two daughters, and a fatherless grandson. Erna and Henni from the bakery, who are staying with their employer because it was impossible for them to make their way home. Antoine the Belgian with his curly black hair, who puts on a big show of being a baker's apprentice and has something going with Henni. The landlord's housekeeper, who got left behind, and who in open defiance of all air-raid regulations is carrying an aging fox terrier. And then there's me - a pale-faced blonde always dressed in the same winter coat - which she managed to save just by chance - who was employed in a publishing house until it shut down last week and sent the employees on leave "until further notice."
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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