The Woman in Flat 18
The rubble from Mittelstrasse had been swept into heaps by the red faced women in faded headscarves. Some wore napkins and teatowels wrapped around their foreheads, others had aprons and blouses patched up with curtains or bedsheets.
She had been ordered to sweep too, but had got a doctor friend to convince the guard to let her stay in, and seal envelopes and stack papers. It was safe for her to do it, he had said. She couldn’t read or speak Russian. She did the work, anyway, by the wide window where the white spring light streamed in. Maybe it would mean that he would come back.
Your mother would make me leave, her father had said on her birthday back in 1933, curiously sober for a Saturday night. We’d have to leave. There’s no way I could keep my mouth shut. Perhaps it ran in the family, that foolish bravery of the Haemels. Her mother had cleared the plates silently, aware that their exit visas had been denied the week before. The letter had arrived, in cold black ink on crisp paper. America had no need for shoemakers, not now. The world had crumbled, splintering from saccharine buttercream and smoking birthday candles into broken glass, burnt concrete and acrid smoke.
Very few men, her mother had complained over her sewing, could antagonise the right as much as the left. He was lucky they hadn’t shot him. The only reason they hadn’t was because he was the last man in town who could fix shoes. So they had beaten him with the barrel of their guns and spat at him, leaving him wounded and bruised in bed for a week. Now the stream of red and black flags and drum of boots had been replaced by gunshots and sickles. It made no difference. Her father had hated them both for the same reason; they wanted his silence, his submission, and his complicit loyalty. Truth was to Kristian Haemel as water or air. The absence of it riled him. And now, he was gone.
The neighbour in the apartment below Flat 18 was Jacob Koln. An anxious man, and a curtain twitcher. He lived there with his thin brittle wife who wore floral overalls and only left the living room to beat the carpet on the balcony. Kristian had been merciless when he had found out who had informed on him to the secret police. “So, Jacob,” he had boomed in the line for the store. “Will you be informing on me to the communists as well as the SS? Or will it be your wife, this time?” The man had paled, pushing his way from the crowd and marching through the falling leaves to stare through the windows at the crowd.
You’re the traitor, bootmaker, he had hissed from the corridor the next morning. Not me. We’d have won if it wasn’t for your types.
She’d been out with her mother to get rations when it had happened. They had come back to the building to find the door broken in. The kitchen was smashed, the drawers pulled open and the papers gone. “What did he do?” her mother had shouted at the acne scarred young soldier at the bureau. “What did you find? Nothing. What threat was he to you? None. My husband’s crime is that of not being a communist.”
“Your husband’s crime,” the boy had replied, “Is being an enemy of the people and the socialist struggle.”
“How?” my mother had asked, unusually brazen. “How can a man be an enemy of the people for speaking his mind? Or should the plebian classes know their place and hold their tongues, comrade?”
“Unless you want to find yourself where he is headed, comrade,” the soldier had answered, “you would do well to keep your mouth shut.”
Where he is headed.
Those words stuck in her mind, reeling over and over like a stuck film. No one knew where that was. Some people rumoured that it was a lie, like so much these days. That the place was just a mass grave in Schamelfeld where the men and women had been shot by the Red Army. Others said they had seen men close to death on a train far east. There were prisons, still others whispered, out somewhere north. No one knew. Dead or living, no one knew.
The father who had bounced her on her knee, goosestepped and quacked until she had cried with laughter, and wiped crumbs of birthday cake from her chin one cold January day was gone. A bootmaker, the state had decided, a middle-aged father with a taste for nougat and dutch cheese, was a threat to the equality and freedom of the freed socialist peoples.
She grieved, often, but only when her bedroom door was shut and her mother was listening to the radio. Her sheets tasted of salt and her head swam with pain. There was an ache in her, a deep profound desire to return to the kitchen on the 13th of October and say goodbye. To run her fingers through his thinning hair and hug him one last time. To tell him she loved him. You silly goose, her father would reply in her thoughts. You know I’m always here. You know I never left you. Us Haemels, we’re made of strong stuff.
It was spring now. Well, the cusp of it. And she sat by the open window and watched the women work below, filling envelopes and stacking discarded papers. Some burnt, some kept. All were meaningless to her, the only sense in them the numbers on the top. 1032. 1034. 1101. 1102. Repetitive, dull work. Perhaps these were about her father. Perhaps they wrote about her. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. They ate, they slept, they survived.
The soldiers called on her, with gifts of vodka, chocolates and nylons. She was polite with them, ignoring their bad German and worse manners. Sometimes a general would come, and the men would sour and leave, crestfallen. Even socialists, it seemed, were to leave prizes to those of higher rank. Where is my father, she would ask them, pouring tea and holding back tears. Will you help him, comrade?
And they would grope her knee under the table, pat her shoulders and say they pitied her, and were sure he would come back. Others promised to look into it if she would be friendly with them. Their wives were so far away. They’d show her creased pictures of children with plaited hair, wives with beaming babies who would now long have grown into children. But nothing would ever come of it. The seasons moved on, and it seemed as though Kristian Haemel might well be sleeping in a ditch in Schamelfeld.
He came back. Eleven years later.
It was October, the 13th, by eerie coincidence. The leaves were thick on the streets, the pigeons breaking the silence across the square. He knocked on the door, and she had opened it in a stunned silence. He was thinner, much thinner, and he looked ancient, older than she could ever have imagined. With a child on her hip, she had let him in, her mother falling down on her knees to thank God. Perhaps she was dreaming.
Where did you go?
He had shook his head, patting her hand softly. He’d never speak of it, not for the next nineteen years of his life. Not even on his deathbed, long after Stalin was gone. The state had finally silenced him. When he had put on a little weight and regained his strength, he went down to the street and walked the length of Mittelstrasse. Suddenly he stopped, looking at the face of Jacob Koln in front of him.
The man said nothing, pulling up his collar, the guilt lining his face as he strode through the cold.
“Hey, Jacob,” her father had called out, his eyes glittering. “Are you going to inform on me to Khrushchev? Or would you like to give your wife a go?”