The night of October 12 was silent in the German forests; a weary wind crept over the fields, shuffled through the darkened cities of year four after Hitler, crawled eastward past the Elbe in the early dawn, climbed over the crest of the Ore Mountains, plucked at the banners that hung limply in the ruins of Magdeburg, made its way discreetly down through the Etterberg beech woods to the statue of the two great thinkers and the houses of the still greater forgetters, stirred up the dust of lignite mines, billowed for a moment the huge flag in front of Berlin University on Unter den Linden, trickled over the sandy plains of Brandenburg and finally disappeared into the lowlands east of the Oder.
It was a cool night, and people shivered in their poorly heated apartments. The autumn chill stole into their embraces and their loneliness, their hopes and their indifference, their dreams and their doubts.
Now speeches had died away, demonstrations were over, proclamations rotated between the cylinders of the newspapers’ printing presses. Streets and squares steamed in the morning sun. The first shift was heading for the factories. Posters faded in the wind.
On this morning, October 13, Hermann Fischer awoke earlier than usual. At first he thought he’d been awakened by the cold. But then he heard the laborious growl of the SIS buses grinding up the mountain in second gear, and suddenly he was wide awake, thinking: the new ones are coming. The thirty or forty men without whom they might barely manage to keep the mine going for another two or three days, maybe another week, if nothing out of the ordinary happened–no gallery collapse, no washed-out roads, no conveyor breakdown. For two weeks the mine officials had been screaming, writing, telephoning; Fischer had almost given up hope. Yesterday, however, the team leader had suddenly called him. And Fischer now knew it was not just the cold that made him so exhausted; it was also not knowing whether at the last moment someone would snatch the new workers away from him.
Fischer got up. As he did every morning, he turned the radio on without looking. He went into the washroom, quickly poured a pitcher of water over his neck, rubbed himself dry with the linen hand towel. When he came back into the bedroom, the loudspeaker was droning the morning news through the barracks. As we work today, someone had said, so we will live tomorrow. Next door somebody knocked on the wall. Fischer turned the radio a little lower.
The rubber boots were still damp, though he’d stuffed them with old newspapers the night before. And the heavy leather jacket still smelled of musty, brackish water. As he went by, he looked at himself in the old shaving mirror next to the door, the sunken, stubbly cheeks, the tired eyes. Then he went out.
The camp manager was already standing by the door; he was surly, as usual, and replied to Fischer’s greetings with an indifferent nod. The air was less damp than it had been the day before. Fischer heard the rumbling of the blasting, which had been muffled by the rain the past few days. Over in Devil’s Gorge they were opening new shafts. It was already so light that he could see down into the valley. He made out the silhouette of the paper mill’s chimney, over which light gray clouds drifted very slowly from Bohemia. It was one of the largest paper mills in Europe, but up here hardly anyone noticed it. People had lost a clear sense of scale since this immense mining operation had been thrust into the mountains almost overnight, reaching from Saxony to Thuringia: Wismut AG.
During these rainy days the last few kilometers of the temporary road they’d built through the forest two years earlier had been flooded. The SIS buses stopped a thousand meters down the mountain.
From the edge of the barracks camp Fischer watched the column of new workers creeping up the mountain. They plodded along bent over, sometimes stumbling under the weight of their trunks and backpacks. Many wore low shoes; occasionally, when they got off the narrow clinker path that was what remained of the road, they sank into the mire. Their coats were creased and gray. Gray like this October morning, with its cold sky, its motionless fir trees, and the moldy smell of rotting stumps. Fischer tried to count them, but their heads bobbed up and down, constantly changing positions, and he finally gave up.
He thought: That’s how I once arrived here. He looked at the colorless, silent figures trudging toward him, and all at once he felt the weariness of his half a century creeping up on him. He could sing a song about these marches into uncertainty. These dawns that did not know what evening would bring. Yesterday, as he marched alongside Zacharias in the demonstration, for a moment he’d felt free and full of strength. For a few hours he was young again and unbent by the burden of the trials he’d gotten through and not gotten through. But today was an ordinary day again. Today he was a foreman again, responsible for production, which was already down to 92 percent. He was party secretary again and responsible for these new workers; hopefully at least one or two of them were party members. In these first post-war years the fate of the world depended for one eternal-seeming moment on the production of the German uranium mines, and Fischer was one of the few who knew that. Atomic energy—that was a matter of life or death. The world had already seen Hiroshima. Fischer watched tomorrow’s Sunday sinking under a mountain of little tasks; he was tired, very tired, in the past week he’d hardly taken off his boots.
From the camp came the clatter of coffee pots, the shuffle of rubber boots on the wooden steps in front of the barracks; the mates on the first shift were getting their coffee from the kitchen. Fischer looked over the new men again; he could now distinguish their faces, and he thought for a moment: what could be in these heads, behind the downcast foreheads, under these shocks of hair? Then he turned around and went back to the camp. Smoke trickled from the chimneys, a few fellows had opened windows and let the morning air into the bedrooms. He walked along the green picket fence that separated the mine area from the camp, greeted the Soviet sentry looking down from his hatch in the watchtower; a young fellow, maybe nineteen or twenty, obviously dying of boredom in his wooden perch. Finally he went into the admission barracks, the most boring of these thirty wooden buildings.
The camp manager was sitting in the office, sharpening a pencil. He hardly looked up when Fischer came in. He pushed his notebook into position and asked: “How many?”
“About forty,” Fischer said.
Then he went to the telephone and had the operator connect him with the Soviet mine director. You could call Polotnikov at any time of the day or night; in some mysterious way he always managed to be reachable. He had been a tank officer during the war, had driven from Moscow to Berlin in his T-34, over the Volga, over the Vistula, over the Oder. He maintained a reserved, almost distrustful attitude toward his German fellow workers, and even toward German party comrades. Polotnikov’s office always smelled a little of vodka, and the shaft director said: “Polotnikov drinks like a cavalryman and can handle even nitric acid.” In any case, he was able to work twenty hours a day.
Fischer told him about the new workers’ arrival.
“Forty?” Polotnikov said. “I can tell you exactly how many: thirty-eight. Pick out fifteen for the middle shift.”
As they talked, the new workers assembled in front of the barracks. Fischer could see them through the window. They were setting down their trunks and bundles, a few rolled cigarettes, and several stood in small groups. Most of them sat on their trunks and stared straight ahead. Many were still very young.
Fischer saw squatting on a bundle close to the window a skinny guy who was eighteen at most, and he thought: God’s sake, the new Germany is off to a brilliant start! Looked like he was about to keel over. And he will, too, Fischer thought. Thirty times down the shaft, thirty times back up, a hundred and eighty meters, every day, boring holes without a brace, working double shifts, and filling bottomless ore wagons . . . He looked at them standing there, with their army backpacks and gray wooden trunks from the P.O.W. camps, he saw twenty-two-three-four-year-olds with the restless, distrustful, watchful eyes of homeless refugees, and only here and there a confident look. Many of them had grown up without ever having had a chance to be young.
The camp manager had gone out to explain to them, in his grumpy way, what was going to happen in the coming minutes and hours.
Christian Kleinschmidt thought: So this is Wismut. Barracks, dirt, wooden shaftheads that didn’t inspire much confidence, more dirt, and this wrinkled little man who hardly moved his lips when he spoke. The little man was mumbling something about registration, meal tickets, wool blankets, and kitchen hours. He stood there solemnly like Mark the evangelist at the feeding of the five thousand. But he, Christian Kleinschmidt, didn’t give a damn about the Gospels. And especially about the Gospel of good and sufficient food—if you worked hard enough, of course. He thought: Here you are, with your high school diploma in your pocket, and this letter indefinitely postponing your enrollment at the university, but recommending, as a consolation, that in the interim you devote yourself to practical work. Ore mining is in urgent need of workers. Here you stand, you can do no other, and don’t expect God to help you, amen. Unfortunately, he’d chosen a father wholly unfit for these times, he should have been more careful eighteen years ago, when he was brought into this world.
The little man was saying: damage to the linens received will be deducted from your salary, losses will be deducted, stopping work early will result in deductions, wanton destruction… Christian nudged his neighbor, but he just looked dully in front of him.
Very talented, his teacher had said, very talented. At any rate, “former Herr Private First Class” Buttgereit was allowed to go back to teaching. Back then he’d done faithfully and dutifully what he was ordered to do; now, once again, he knew exactly how things were: crooked, straight, right, wrong. When he had time, he’d studied the “Communist Manifesto.” Had not been a Nazi. Now he trotted out the proletarians of all countries as he once had Hans Fritzsche and the Völkischer Beobachter.
But he, Christian Kleinschmidt, was allowed to carry stones and break his skull in this mine. Of course, there was no collective guilt; the great Stalin had expressly said that in the article they’d chewed their way through twice. And what the great Stalin said was simply the truth, unanimous, period.
They hadn’t exactly made it fun for him. Buttgereit hadn’t, and certainly Göring, the Russian teacher, hadn’t. Göring had the whole school against him. It was too much to have a Russian teacher named Göring, of all things, they all agreed about that. The students had taken a red pencil to homework that had been corrected and handed back, underlining words that were correct to make it look as though Herr Göring had marked them wrong, and then gone to the head’s office to complain about his incompetence. The head believed them, and for three days Göring crept sheepishly around the school building; he thought he knew all the tricks, but he hadn’t heard of this one, and hadn’t even been able to hang anything on them. Christian had once managed to write a large, bright “PG” for Nazi party member on the back of Buttgereit’s blue double-breasted coat. Buttgereit strutted around the schoolyard during the whole ten o’clock recess like that. The other teachers pretended not to see anything; he wasn’t very popular with them, either. Christian had been the school hero for a week, and Buttgereit had never found out who’d played this prank on him. But he had avenged himself in his own way on everyone he suspected. Little Pinselstein, for instance, whom he had slowly but surely worn down by constantly putting black marks on his class record and sending notes home to his parents for the smallest offenses. Buttgereit knew that Pinselstein’s father, a prominent attorney, would punish his son.
In the meantime, the camp manager had been given the roster by the man accompanying the recruits, and began to call out their names: Ahnert, Bertram, Billing, Buchmeier… After every fourth name he gave a barracks and room number, and the men called picked up their trunks and bundles and went slowly into the camp. Daumann, Dombrowski, Drescher, Eilitz …
It’s not the worst thing in the world, his father had said. Work isn’t dishonorable. He had a proverb ready for every situation, his quotation, his way of talking. Sometimes it helped, too. Erhardt, Feller, Fichtner, Fuhlgrabe … And he’d said: Just keep your nose to the wind, that can’t hurt. There were also times when the wind didn’t blow, God knows. And then they took the Theodor Körner statue off its pedestal, because Körner was a war propagandist, and Buttgereit was very emphatic about it. However, it was put back a little while later, an oversight, so to speak. The fact that with the best score in class 12b he was not allowed to go on to the university, whereas others, who got through by the skin of their teeth, were gladly admitted because their fathers happened to be metal workers or had joined the right party at the right time, that was surely also an oversight… Hunger, Illgen, Irrgang, Kaufmann … Truly times when the wind was not blowing. Not that he was afraid of the mine, not at all. And even if he was, he wouldn’t show it. Kleinschmidt, Loose, Mehlhorn, Müller…
They started out to find barrack no. 24 The group of men waiting had shrunk; there might have been fifteen or sixteen. It was now full daylight, the sky shimmered very blue under the light gray clouds, and sometimes the sun threw a bundle of rays over the land. But it still smelled putrid, the streets between the barracks were ankle-deep in mud, the earth steamed.
Christian walked behind the three others. The fat guy in front of him was Mehlhorn. Christian had been standing close to him just now, when Mehlhorn roared out his staunch “Here!” Mehlhorn carried a military knapsack filled with stuff; under the straps a piece of newspaper peeped out. Christian could decipher a headline: Margarine is healthier. Whenever butter was in short supply in Germany, the chemists started talking about how digestible margarine was.
The red numbers on the barracks walls were faded, of some of them only a few bits of color remained. Fat Mehlhorn asked a fellow who was washing off his rubber boots with a garden hose where building no. 24 was. They ‘d already gone too far, missed the turn, the house was a little outside the camp, on a hill. They turned around.
They shuffled over the slippery ground between the tree stumps, between the colorless clumps of grass, between the monotone barracks, all of them cold and bleak, avoided the puddles, sometimes slipped, pulled their feet out of the mud and shuffled on. Christian was exhausted after his sleepless night down below, in the yard of the mine management office, in the crowded, badly sprung bus; the straps of his rucksack cut into his shoulders, his trunk hung like a lump of lead from his numb arm. He straightened his back, stood up and shifted the rucksack higher, but immediately lapsed back into a hunched-over posture that made it hard to breathe and compressed his ribs. He could no longer say which way they’d gone, one corner looked just like the rest, one bricked-up window like all the others, the damp rising from the ground shimmered before his eyes, the buildings moved toward him, swaying as if they were about to collapse. The panes will crack, the roofs sink in, all that was lacking was the flames, detonations, the red sky and the cries, driven mad by fear and heat and fire, but the earth moved beneath him as it did then. His father walked in front of him, stumbling, his rucksack weighed him down, that enormous chunk of canvas, margarine is better for your health, but he sensed that his mother was no longer behind him, Mother, wait. They didn’t wait. They kept on stumbling forward. Right behind him a wall fell down with a rushing sound, a stone hit him on the shoulder, knocked him to the ground, he struggled back to his feet, just keep going farther, farther, the people in front of him weren’t waiting, the city was going under, the world was going under, farther. But he couldn’t go any farther. He threw himself down on the smoking pile of rubble, where just now there had been streets, he scraped his hands bloody, he screamed. A burning beam had pinned down the man next to him. He did not feel the monstrous wave that lifted him up and let him down again, he clung to the base of a bent-over street lamp; iron girders, window-sills, people whirled over his head, but the bomb had fallen where there was no longer a building, it could only hurl the already buried bodies back into the air again. They were dropping high-explosive bombs on the burning city, high-explosive bombs after the firebombs, and more and more phosphorous canisters. The burning phosphorous ate into the stones, crept nearer, streetcar rails twisted out of the pavement, the air rushed into the lungs like glowing lava, the deafened eardrums no longer heard the cries, then he suddenly saw the dog, the little black dog with the singed fur that pressed itself up against him, trembling and panting, shoved its head under his arm in order not to have hear and see. And he stood up again, a screaming shadow. Something swept overhead, a burning plane that tore off the little chimneys and exploded against the burning tower of a burning church a kilometer farther on. He staggered on, in the smoke, between the bursting walls, past a woman, a torch that ran headlong into an advertising pillar, and the singed black dog trotted around his legs, whining. He came into a street that sloped down before him, the asphalt hot and sticky; he didn’t know where he was. But he had a goal. He was looking for the pond with the little island and a narrow walk along the bank, the green heart beneath the stony breast of the city. He walked and staggered under the red sky, criss-crossed by the yellow fingers of the searchlights, under the white light of the target flares that slowly floated down. With rattling lungs he gasped for breath as he went along the row of pale yellow streetcars, barracks, streetcars, barracks, further, further …
From Rummelplatz by Werner Bräunig
© Aufbau Verlag, Berlin 2007
Translation © Steven Rendall