NOVEMBER 2006 – NO. 10
"We had now joined the thousands of people who were homeless, ausegebombt, the bombed out."
I returned to Berlin in August, 1943. Happy to be back home in our apartment, I snuggled in the wide sofa with its many pillows. Mother always made everything look beautiful. Even now, with long hours spent at work, she found time to go to the flower market. Through the half-open door I admired the sunflowers in the copper pitcher in the entry; they were bright and burnished as if they were still in a garden, bathed in sunlight.
The flowers brought me back to the fisherman's cottage on the island of Sylt; the old house had been surrounded by sunflowers. I longed for that summer of four years ago. I longed for the sea and for my dreams of mermaids. I longed for peace.
Mother dangled a cigarette from her hand, her elbow resting on the table. I watched the smoke curl in graceful spirals, framing the oval of her face in whispers, and thought that even the smoke wished to caress her. She lifted her slender hand, her long fingers tipped with scarlet connecting the cigarette to her color-matched lips, and when she exhaled and blew smoke in ringlets towards me, my ten-year-old heart felt ready to crack wide open, loving her so much. I loved her beauty and her large gray eyes as they gazed at me half-hidden by a curtain of lashes. I wanted to slide the smoke rings onto my finger and pledge myself to her; I wanted her to be mine forever. But she was as ephemeral as the smoke veiling her.
It was August 23, 1943. For me to have returned to Berlin was against the orders of the Third Reich, which mandated that all children be in a safe place in the countryside. But it was summer, and the schools that kept records of us children were closed, so no one would know where I was. I had my ration card from Liegnitz, which Mother was able to register in the same grocery store with hers and Oma's. It would last until I returned to my father's place in September, when I would receive a new one for the next month.
There had been air raids. Now the siren sounded again. It was an hour earlier than the customary time for a bombing. (People said they could set their clocks by the arrival of British planes.) We had finished dinner, and Oman and Mutti were lingering over mucke-fuck, our ersatz coffee made from hickory nuts and some kind of grain, which tasted offensively bitter. Mother sipped cognac, real French cognac, and blew smoke rings. I don't think she inhaled, and I believe Oma was glad to be summoned into the cellar by the siren, since she disliked Mother's smoking. Smoking was verboten in the cellar.
Mother always took her time when the alarm sounded; the bombs were meant for others. The house warden banged a reprimanding rhythm on our front door, shouting, "You have to come down, now!" Mother, who had recently studied "La Habanera," from Carmen, trilled that aria at him: "Ja die Lieb hat bunte Flugel" — Love has colorful wings, such a bird you cannot catch. I heard him grumble as he hobbled back down the stairs.
Oma threw Mother a chastising look. She grabbed our coats, and we followed the house warden and reached the vestibule. I was curious about what was going on outside. Mother pushed at the heavy oak door. It creaked as it opened, and we stepped onto the sidewalk.
We saw them.
In the darkening sky phosphorous lights slowly floated earthward, marking the way for British bombers, leading the pilots to tonight's target. Like gigantic triangular snowflakes, they floated above our section of Berlin. As in a game, they signaled that "You Are It!" Someone with a Berliner's mordant wit had named these flares, which brought destruction and death, Weihnachtsbaume, which is German for "Christmas tree." There was a strange beauty in all of this. My heart pounded faster, and I reached for Mother's hand and pressed close to her. Then we too went down into the cellar.
The other tenants in our building were already in their customary seats. The cellar had been fortified a few years earlier. Heavy beams were placed to withstand collapsing walls and ceilings; a small opening was dug to connect us to the neighboring cellar, leaving an alternate rout of escape in case the building collapsed and the way out to the street was blocked — vershuttet. This loosely closed hold in the cellar wall could be opened with a shovel or a pick axe. The cellar was outfitted with cots along the walls, and we had a kerosene lamp. There were a few chairs, candles, shovels, flashlights, and some food provisions and water. Some people kept pillows and blankets in the shelter; others carried small suitcases up and down the stairs each time the alarm sounded.
Mother never expected to be in the cellar for any length of time. She carried only her handbag. Oma had packed photo albums and some necessities for all of us in a suitcase she kept in the cellar stall where potatoes and apples were stored in the winter.
When we entered the cellar, faces with skin the color of watery oatmeal stared at my flamboyant mother and me. I worried that someone would give my presence away to the authorities. I was self-conscious about my looks; I was skinny, with scrawny legs, wire-rimmed glasses, and dirty blonde pigtails. I kept looking at Mother, the only lovely sight amid the colorless faces in this dank basement.
People in the cellar joked about "fat Emma' and how this Emma had brought us air raids and possible death. "Damn fat Emma, for bringing us the Tommy's revenge." They were referring to Rechsmarschall Hermann Goring, the commander of the German Air Force, who had boasted after his Luftwaffe started to blitz London that our air defenses were so strong that no British plane could penetrate German airspace. He had declared, "If even one of the British planes manages to drop a single bomb on a German town, dann will ich Emma Heissen" — then you can call me "Emma." Emma was his wife's name. Even the house warden, a member of the Nazi Party, cursed Goring and shook his head.
Soon we heard the whistles, the zinging sound of bombs, the high-pitched hum that sounded like gigantic metallic insects, the roar of airplane motors, and then the explosion that followed.
The bombing had started.
We heard a few Sprengbomben, or blockbusters, detonate near us; our house convulsed as the explosions reverberated in the building. These bombs were followed by the Brandbombedn, the incendiary bombs. Again there was a high-pitched zing, then the wham and the shaking. Time and time again we heard the whistle, coming closer — followed by the bomb's impact. I buried my face in my grandmother's shoulder, my right arm stretched out to hold on to my mother.
When I opened my eyes, I saw us all as ghosts — strange ghosts, with large eyes surrounded by white eyelashes, hovered above bodies coated grayish white with the dust of fallen plaster and pulverized concrete.
"The building is on fire. Out! Everybody out," shouted the house warden. We scrambled to our feet. Oma grabbed the suitcase from the potato bin and we ran to the exit, coughing, tying handkerchiefs across our mouths. It was nighttime, but it was so bright outside on the street that it could have been daytime. The street was lit up with a ghostly, stage-set light, red and orange from the fires mixed with the white, bluish green reflection from the floating Christmas trees. All was veiled in billows of smoke through which I could see probing searchlights crisscrossing the dark sky above the brightness. Suddenly, a plane was caught in the crossbeam of the lights, looking like a moth trying to escape, and when the flak hit the plane, it was as if a star exploded in a jagged flame above the smoke. An eerie stillness hung above us in the sky, while bombs rained all around us, bursting with horrendous noise.
"I need help to put the fire out under the roof," the warden's voice coughed through the dust. Mother rushed to his side, and they, and several others, climbed the five flights of stairs to the attic. Mother told us later what happened. Sand lay heaped in large containers, and there was water. Water was useless in fighting phosphorous bombs, but the sand would smother the flames. There was another rain of bombs — one crashed through the roof near them — but there was no more sand. Everyone had to run for their lives.
Mother stopped by our apartment on the second floor. The door had been blown wide open. Mother's eyes lit upon the antique chest in the entrance. She grabbed the dozen sunflowers from the pitcher and an armful of hats and umbrellas. When she emerged from the burning house, she was a strange sight: tall and slender, framed by the blazing building, in her arm a large bouquet of sunflowers.
I stared at her, wondering if she had lost her mind.
Grandmother took the load from her arms. "Astrid, flowers … ?" Oma shook her head. "Hats? Umbrellas?" Was that a reproach? She did not say, why not the ancient family bible, the ancestors' portraits, why not the silver? Mother stood mute.
"Mutti, my dolls, and my teddy bear?"
Mother cast a long look at me, turned and ran back toward the burning building. I ran after her, shouting, "No, I don't need them, no, don't go, no!" I tried to catch her, and when I caught up with her, I tried to hold her, as did my grandmother. The house warden grabbed Mother's jacket. She shook us all loose and disappeared from sight.
I do not remember how much time passed before I heard the awful noise: crunching, crashing, exploding walls, beams, and wood. My heart felt as if it would stop beating and drop to my feat. I bit my lips, something bitter rose from my stomach. Oma locked her arms around me and squeezed. When I opened my eyes, I could not see a thing; the smoke was biting, thick, and acrid. My eyes burned. Soot, dust, ashes, and rubble were all around me, and heat blasted as if from a furnace.
A voice screamed, "My God, the staircase is collapsing." I choked and looked up. An incandescent light sliced the gray, as if a giant torch were spitting fire up, and at the same time, the fire licked down the blackened spinal column of the stairwell. Part of the house imploded in a shower of sparks, like giant fireflies. I looked away, held my breath, and bit my lip until it bled.
And then a spectral figure emerged from swirls of orange and gray, stepped out of the smoke towards me, and became my mother.
My mother, bearing a silver teapot and my toy bear.
We had now joined the thousands of people who were homeless, ausgebombt, the bombed out. The gray hordes walking in limbo. Everything of value was gone: our 16th-century hand-illuminated bible and our early 18th-century ancestors' portraits. I liked the portrait of the woman in blue silk, with glowing skin tones and wide-set blue eyes more than I liked any of the others. She wore a fancifully coiffed silver wig. Now her portrait and her husband's — he was also bewigged, wearing his scarlet mayoral costume replete with golden chains and medals — were gone, reduced to ashes. My Kathe Kruse doll, my baby doll, my toys, my books, the silver, the china, Mother's piano and costume sketches, my father's drawings, and the Christmas ornaments, all were ashes.
Excerpted from Good-bye to the Mermaids: A Childhood Lost in Hitler's Berlin by Karin Finell, published by the University of Missouri Press in 2006.
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