Tim Krohn’s novel The Life of a Top-Quality Mattress follows the story of a mattress from 1935 to 1992, as it is passed from family to family. The story begins with newlyweds Immanuel and Gioia Wassermann, who share the mattress on their wedding night in a guest house in Germany, taking it with them when they leave the next morning. The rise of the Nazis interrupts the Wassermanns’ marital bliss as Immanuel is arrested by the Gestapo and Gioia moves to Schaffhausen, Switzerland. After a few years she decides to start a new life in America, leaving the mattress behind in Schaffhausen, where it is found by the Weishaupt family and used in the cellar during air raids. The mattress is subsequently adopted by various people and even appears in different countries, eventually washing up onto a beach in France where it is found by Immanuel Wassermann, bringing the story full circle. Each chapter offers a brief insight into the lives of the characters using the mattress and so gives the reader a snapshot of life in Europe throughout the 20th century.
‘As soon as you hear the sirens sound, run down to the cellar and crawl under the mattress,’ Nora Weishaupt told her children firmly every morning, before leaving for the Schaffhausen post office where she worked behind the counter.
She didn’t need to remind them; the children loved playing in the cellar and always waited impatiently for the sirens to sound. Children weren’t allowed in the cellar without their parents, except during an air raid. This was supposedly for health and safety reasons, but really it was because Hausmeister Fischli lived on the ground floor with his elderly mother, and both of them were ‘innately sensitive to noise’, as they put it.
Like all larger families, the Weishaupts had actually been given their own cellar space soon after the previous tenant Gioia Wassermann had moved out of the flat, but Herr Fischli said they could hear the noise through the ceiling. The Weishaupt family consisted of Nora and her three children; all the children had different hair colours and different fathers, each of whom had since passed away.
There were lots of air raids that spring, though usually in the evenings. That was when the Americans, Nora Weishaupt explained to her children, flew from France or London over to Germany to punish the Nazis for stealing fathers away from their children.
‘But this is Switzerland,’ said Little Paul, ‘why do we need to hide from them?’ He would have much preferred to run out into the street to watch the bombers thunder past.
‘At night the Americans can’t quite see where Germany begins. Schaffhausen is so close to Germany that they could easily drop their bombs here instead,’ replied Nora Weishaupt.
Gioia Wassermann’s mattress lay in the cellar ready for these night-time air raids; all three children could curl up on it and they slept better there than on their own thin horsehair mats. Nora Weishaupt would sit next to them and ‘keep watch’, as she called it – she darned stockings and read Dante’s The Divine Comedy which had been left behind by Gioia Wassermann along with her mattress and some other books, all still beautifully gift wrapped. (In this book she’d written ‘To my dearest Immanuel on our wedding anniversary’, in her own ornate hand. Inside a book on Italian cooking she’d put ‘For Immanuel on our second wedding anniversary’. ‘Immanuel on our fourth’ was all that stood inside a thin book of poems by Petrarch, by which time Gioia’s handwriting had become less elaborate.)
Like everyone else, Nora Weishaupt didn’t believe there was any real threat from the Allies during the day, as enormous Swiss flags had been spread out across many of the rooftops. In spite of this, everyone had to stop what they were doing and take shelter as soon as the sirens started to wail. Her job at the post office meant she had to leave her children, aged three, four and seven, alone in the flat for most of the day, only hurrying home at lunchtime to cook for them before going back to work. She’d forbidden the children to leave the flat and play in the street; they were often bored and so became even more excited by the chaos that broke out in the stairwell whenever the sirens sounded.
And so it was that on the first day in April, a loud cheer was heard when the air raid warning went off at half past ten in the morning. David, the eldest, unlocked the door and the three children clattered past their neighbours and down the stairs. They liked to get there first so they could turn on the lights in the cellar (light switches were also out of bounds, except during an air raid).
The children always played the same game in their section of the cellar. The mattress had joints in it which allowed it to be folded, so it was also possible for the children to make a house by leaning one of the ends against the wall. All three sat inside the house and pretended to be in a heavy bombing raid. Sometimes David played the part of the bomber pilot, running into the outside of the mattress house while Little Paul and Doro were inside being bombed, crying out ‘Help! Help!’ and ‘We’re being bombed! We’re being bombed!’ whilst holding tightly onto each other and howling as loudly as they could. When David decided the attack was over they would play the role of the lucky survivors, clambering out into the open, or rather out from underneath the mattress. Or, if they were supposed to have been injured, David would drag the two little ones out by himself in order to treat the wounded and bury the dead, after checking them for valuables first. They would also search through the rubble before cooking their lunch amongst the ruins, and doing everything else that bombed-out people did in the stories they begged Nora Weishaupt to tell them every night before they went to sleep.
On this first day in April their game was even better than usual; they could really hear the bombs exploding, could feel the air tremble and the ground shake. The mattress actually jumped into the air and every so often real bits of debris went flying. Doro and Little Paul competed to see who could scream the loudest and, best of all, David suddenly fell to his knees clutching his head, blood smeared across his face.
‘But you’re the bomber,’ cried Doro over the racket, ‘you don’t get bombed!’
‘I’m hit,’ called David, unsure whether to cry or be excited at the sight of all the blood. ‘I think my bomber plane was shot down.’
At that moment he swayed from side to side before his head hit the hard ground, his eyes rolled and for a few moments he lay absolutely still. Doro and Little Paul started to scream for real now, noticing for the first time that the guns were still roaring even though they were no longer playing air raids. The air began to stink and David, waking up again, said: ‘You know what? I think it’s real.’
He was now able to sit up at least; his face was still pale but the bleeding had nearly stopped. As the thundering and shaking outside began to fade and only the occasional splinter, crash or rumble could be heard, while the screams of people grew louder and the ambulances began to arrive with their horns hooting, the children decided to leave the cellar.
They all had to throw themselves against the door to slide it open – or at least three-year-old Doro tried her best to help push it – because the ceiling had collapsed and the entrance to the cellar was filled with rubble. As the children climbed the stairs they saw a huge hole in the building on the side facing the back yard. They took each other’s hands and emerged onto the street; the houses were on fire, the air was filled with a foul smoke and all around them the ground was either covered with debris or with people who had been laid out there. Some screamed and cried, others did not move at all, among them old Frau Fischli. Hausmeister Fischli knelt beside her and held her hand; like most of those around him he was white with dust from tip to toe. At first he simply stared ahead as if frozen to the spot, then suddenly vomited before staring straight ahead again until an orderly came over, covered old Frau Fischli and led him to a tent where, as David explained to the little ones, they must be gathering the wounded.
Little Paul wanted to have a look but David said, ‘We have to go to the post office. It must be lunchtime and Mutti doesn’t know yet that she won’t be able to cook for us at home.’
‘Can she cook for us in the post office then?’ asked Little Paul.
‘We’ll see,’ said David. ‘If not then maybe she’ll buy us a bun from Lachmann the baker.’
They didn’t get as far as the post office as the entire row of houses was closed off and the firemen were at work, over a hundred men or half a battalion, David said. The fire still burned so high that the Munot fortress had disappeared behind it. The people here who were doing the rescuing or being rescued weren’t white like those back in the Fulachgasse but black and covered in soot, though their expressions were frozen in exactly the same way.
David, Little Paul and Doro spent a while deciding which of the sooty figures was Herr Kaltenberger, the post office manager, then went over to him and asked him to take them to their mother, or at least to tell them where they could find her. At first Herr Kaltenberger wasn’t sure what they wanted from him, and when they finally made him understand they were Nora Weishaupt’s children he shook his head slowly before saying, so quietly that only David understood him, that their Mutti had run back out of the bunker as the first bombs fell, wanting to return home. The air raid warden had tried to stop her but she had scratched his face viciously and had run out into the square, which was already in flames. And then he said something very strange: ‘Don’t be afraid, children,’ attempting to ruffle David’s hair with his sooty hand, ‘this can only be an April Fool’s joke.’
This chapter paints a fascinating picture of life on the Swiss-German border during the Second World War. I have tried to retain a flavour of the original by keeping some of the names in German, such as ‘Herr Kaltenberger’ and ‘Hausmeister Fischli’, to allow the reader to feel as though they too are in Schaffhausen. There are also some specific Swiss references, such as the allocation of cellar space to each family for storage, and the mention of the ‘Munot’ fortress as a guide to how high the flames are following the air raid. Many readers may not have heard of the Munot, so I felt the insertion of the word ‘fortress’ was necessary here to help readers envisage this landmark. All in all, the novel uses a unique style to provide an effective depiction of life throughout the decades, and is certainly a very interesting piece to explore in translation.
From Aus dem Leben einer Matratze bester Machart © Galiani Berlin (Kiepenheuer & Witsch), 2015