I still hear the rhythmic drumming of the rotation press in the printing room of the Berliner Daily where I just finished my shift. It’s already September, but late summer’s humid heat has returned; it clings to me like a hot, wet towel as I walk to the small park across the street and sit in the shade of a linden tree to read the paper I just helped to print. Today’s Berliner Daily headline boasts “Masterful Retreat at the Ailette Front,” announcing the “successful detachment from the enemy.” Some people are saying the war is not going as well as the government is trying to make it sound. The newspapers have to print the official armed forces war bulletin so it’s hard to know what really is going on, but I am sure the German Reich will achieve final victory.
A woman walks by with a small child on each hand. All three of them look gaunt, their eyes underlined by purplish rings, their cheeks hollow. I’m always hungry myself. After four years of war and the British navy’s blockade of German harbors, there is not much left of anything. Printing paper is rationed since last week and the Berliner Daily is published on only half the usual number of pages.
On the bottom of the first page I study an advertisement for nerve tonic. It reminds me of Papa, who died at Verdun two years ago. At first his letters proudly described the devastating impact of the German flamethrowers on the enemy’s morale, but as the battle dragged on he openly expressed his despair. When my mother read one of those sad letters to us, my older brother, Hans, turned red in the face and yelled, “Maybe we should send him a nerve tonic to build up his strength if he is such a weakling.” Hans can get angry like that. It hurt to hear him talk about Papa this way, but I didn’t dare say anything.
Soon after, we got the letter informing us that Papa had died. Because he also worked for the Berliner Daily the paper paid for his obituary. His name appeared in one of the many black-framed boxes under an Iron Cross, announcing his heroic death on the battlefield for “People, Kaiser, and Fatherland.” When I showed it to Mama she threw the paper across the kitchen table and said, “People, Kaiser, and Fatherland? My husband didn’t die for me or for his country. He only died for our foolish Kaiser, who loves his uniforms and his yachts. He and his military cronies brought us all this misery.” Hans argued with her even then, and I wondered how he could make it sound like it was Papa’s fault to have been shot dead by the enemy’s artillery fire. But I kept quiet. Later I cut out the obituary, folded it neatly, and placed it in the cigar box, the one that shows a picture of the Kaiser in his uniform on the lid.
Now, for more than a year, Hans has been fighting in the trenches on the Western Front. His last letter arrived two weeks ago, asking us to send him lice powder. How awful to be pestered by the little nits while burrowed in the earth, expecting enemy fire or a gas attack at any moment. But Hans was always stronger than me and not afraid of anything. The day Hans left to meet his battalion at the train station, he got angry with Mama for swearing at the “damn war.” Hans said it was an honor to serve the Kaiser, and when Mama saw that he really meant it she cried even more.
On the second page a poetry contest calls readers to “Support the War Effort! Write a patriotic poem to encourage Berliners to give money for the 9th War Bond, 1918.” A patriotic poem is about all I can contribute to the war effort. I am only sixteen, too young to enlist. The winner of the contest will receive 500 Marks. I know I won’t win, but even if my poem comes in third I will get 200 Marks, enough to buy back my mother’s sewing machine. It is still with the fat man in the pawnshop at the corner of Charlottenstrasse.
Mama used to sit under the window in our living room, altering dresses or sewing sailor suits for children, while my little sister, Louise, played with her doll on the floor. Last winter, when Louise started to cough, Mama sold the machine to buy medicine and meat. But then Louise spat blood and two days later she died. Shortly after, my mother went to work in the ammunition factory and began to attend socialist party meetings, talking badly about the Kaiser, blaming him for everything.
During my lunch break I had already composed a few lines: The Kaiser needs us, the Kaiser leads us. Let’s give what we … When I read what I have written out loud, the words leave the hollow sound of an empty can rolling over cobblestones. A good poem expresses the true emotion of the author, my former schoolteacher Professor Blum used to say. There is no doubt that I love the Kaiser and my fatherland, but my feelings don’t come across in these sentences. I rip the page from the notebook, crumple it into a tight ball, and throw it in the metal waste bin next to the park bench.
Hans would have already found a way to make enough money to buy back the sewing machine. On Sundays he often returned home with lentils, eggs, or other items you couldn’t get even with ration cards. He never told me what he and his friend Otto were up to, but I knew he hadn’t bought these things with his salary as a watchmaker at Hoffmann & Nolte. He always made sure I didn’t follow him when he met with Otto and the gang. In several letters I’ve asked Hans if he could put in a good word for me with Otto, and explained why I needed the money. But Hans has never responded. I know that Otto’s gang still makes money and finds food since I overheard Emil bragging about it. Emil and his older brother, Robert, another friend of Hans’s, are both in the gang.
A voice startles me out of my thoughts. “Moritz, what are you doing out here in the heat?”
Herr Goldmann’s lanky body jerks with each step as he pulls his right leg in a stiff limp toward my bench. In spite of the heat he wears a suit. Its jacket seems two sizes too big, and the waistline of his pants is bunched together with a belt.
“Just resting after work, Herr Goldmann.”
“Resting sounds like a good idea.” He sits down next to me and pulls out a handkerchief from his pocket to dab his forehead. “Air as thick as jelly,” he sighs, and shakes his head, sending tiny drops of sweat flying from his dark curls. Herr Goldmann is the only younger journalist left at the Berliner Daily. Because of his leg he has not been drafted.
“I was too late this time,” he says, and holds up a sheet of paper. “You weren’t there, so Old Moser sent me right back out.” Herr Goldmann often brings his drafts to the printing room after the deadline. If Old Moser, my boss, isn’t paying attention, I squeeze the article into the next edition and Herr Goldmann gives me real cigarettes that I sell on the black market. Old Moser thinks they should have found something for Herr Goldmann to do in the war.
“I didn’t know you were also a scribbler.” He points to my notebook.
“I’m not, really.” I like to write my observations in my journal, but I’m not a good writer. After I finished middle school Papa wanted me to start an apprenticeship in the same printshop he worked in. I had dreamed of being a journalist, but there was no money for further schooling once Papa was drafted. The closest I could get to a career in journalism was at the printing press.
“May I?” Without waiting for my answer he takes the notebook and flips through the pages. “You participated in the contest to replace foreign words?”
“Yes, I did. But I didn’t win.” Last spring, newspapers had asked their readers to help clean the German language of foreign vocabulary. I had suggested “Holland Gravy” to replace “Hollandaise Sauce.” But the person who sent in “Dutch Dip” had won.
“You don’t like French words? What about ci-ga-rette?” He widens his dark eyes, giving his birdlike face a comical expression, as he pronounces each syllable with the soft vowels that Berliners usually don’t have. I wonder how he can make the foreign words sound this way.
“Tobacco roll sounds just fine to me.” I shrug.
“You appear to be very interested in politics,” he says, turning another page in my notebook with his tapered fingers.
“I like reading the papers.”
“But you also write, yourself. This is a vivid description of the parade at Tempelhof Field last March.”
I look down and draw a line in the gravel with the tip of my shoe.
“And you copied parts of the Kaiser’s speech celebrating his thirty years as emperor last summer.” Herr Goldmann reads the excerpt out loud, perfectly imitating the Kaiser’s diction. “This war is not fought around a strategic campaign; this war concerns the struggle between two worldviews: Do we uphold the Prussian-German worldview of justice, freedom, and honor? Or do we succumb to the Anglo-Saxon way of doing things, which means the worship of money?”
“You’re good with accents,” I say.
“Thanks. That’s because my mother was an actress.”
“She’s not acting anymore?”
“Oh, no! She’s dead,” Herr Goldmann says.
“She died a long time ago, but thank you.” He nods and reads another of my short descriptions of the Kaiser’s appearances. “You pay attention to detail. That’s important for a good writer!”
“I’m not a good writer.”
“Maybe not yet,” Herr Goldmann says. “But you know what you have to do to become one. That’s the first step!”
I’m not sure how to respond. No one has ever called me a good writer.
“Would you like to come with me?” Herr Goldmann gives the notebook back to me. “I’m on my way to report on a social democratic workers’ meeting for tomorrow’s edition. Have you been to a socialist gathering?”
“No. I don’t care for them,” I say.
“The meeting is supposed to be disturbed by the police. We might see some action,” he says, and winks an eye. “Or do you need to get home?”
I’m not really interested in a political meeting, but it’s still too early to go home and maybe Herr Goldmann will give me another cigarette. I pack up my notebook and follow him as he limps toward the park gate.
“Aren’t these meetings illegal?” I ask as we pass a long line of women waiting in front of a butcher’s shop on Louisenstrasse.
“They are,” Herr Goldmann says. “Since the government has made it illegal to gather and talk about the war, which is what the social democrats mostly do, their meetings are illegal.”
We turn onto Lindenstrasse, and I am about to ask Herr Goldmann how he learned about this gathering when he stops in front of a pub. “Here it is”—he points at the sign above the entrance—“the Hot Corner. What a fitting name. It’s going to be stifling in there.”
We walk past the bar and Herr Goldmann speaks briefly to an older man who sits next to the back door. The man nods and lets us enter. All the windows are closed, most of the net curtains drawn. It is almost too hot to breathe. Clouds of smoke hover over the long tables. I recognize the smell of ersatz cigarettes, made from nettles and dried beech leaves, which most people now have to smoke for lack of real tobacco. The benches are filled with middle-aged men in working clothes, but there are also many women in the audience. A short man with thinning hair and a looping black mustache is speaking from the podium. I follow Herr Goldmann as he makes his way closer to the front. The man at the podium raises his voice when he calls out, “The people are paying the price while the bosses of the war industry are profiteering. It’s the little man who suffers the most.”
“And the little woman,” a female voice shouts from the back of the room.
“Yes, you are right,” he continues. “The women are suffering here at home. They are the ones who have to feed their families, while the capitalists exploit them in their ammunition factories. Four years of slaughter, misery, and hunger are enough.”
“That is Hugo Haase,” Herr Goldmann says. “The leader of the Independent Social Democrats. He’s a member of the Reichstag.”
When Haase finishes his speech, he introduces the next speaker as a courageous leader of the movement. A woman steps behind the podium and I hold my breath.
“Workers,” she addresses the audience, “we are gathered here today to express, once again, our discontent with this war. I have already lost my husband to the war. My oldest son is in the trenches on the Western Front. Many of you have lost husbands, sons, or brothers or soon will if this slaughter doesn’t come to an end. We have been tricked into believing in the final victory of our beloved country. But now it is time to end this war!” Some people in the audience cheer.
“This woman has guts,” Herr Goldmann says approvingly. He scribbles something on his notepad. I don’t respond. I can’t tell Herr Goldmann that the woman is my mother.
Copyright © 2011 by Monika Schröder