Ordinary Women


Germany 1939-1940

Anita and her mother Erna came home from visiting Erna’s racketty friends (Grandmother Anna’s words) in Berlin in the first days of August. They had been away a whole month that had seemed to Anita like a year. In all that time they had been oblivious of the mounting tension in Europe, the increasing hysteria of the Führer’s speeches, the dark unease beneath the disbelief in an imminent war. Erna went out with her friends every night. There was always laughter. Erna’s friends smoked unpleasant smelling Egyptian cigarettes in long holders. They never talked politics.

Grandmother Anna and Grandfather Georg Friedrich, Anita’s Oma and Opa, were at the Hauptbahnhof to meet the Berlin train. The platform was crowded. People talked too loudly, laughed too often and too eagerly, rocked nervously from one foot to another. When the train drew in they surged forward exchanging greetings that were inappropriately effusive, husky with strain. People were nervous. Certainty had replaced doubt. War was only weeks, perhaps days, away. Unglaublich! – unbelievable.

Holding tightly to her mother’s hand, Anita climbed down on to the platform, hardly able to contain her excitement. She was a small, dark-haired, dark-eyed child, bursting with energy. For her life was motion and she was hardly ever still, jumping up and down in her pale blue frock, the white ribbon in her hair flying, her feet in their white socks and sandals almost dancing on the railway station platform.


The month away had been dull, boring, horridly tedious; a series of short stays in luxurious and uncomfortable Berlin flats with her mother’s women friends, all of whom seemed to have stiff Marcel waves in their hair, who gossiped endlessly, and who wore voluminous pastel coloured silk pyjamas from the moment they got up until they went out at night. Their reactions to Anita were identical. First they made a fuss over her, then they got bored and impatient and snappy, then they ignored her altogether. Anita spent her days mooning through dull rooms full of unfriendly Bauhaus-clinical modern furniture that all seemed exactly the same in the end, or moped at a window watching the people on the crowded pavements below, a good half of whom seemed to be wearing uniforms. There was an unending stream of highly polished cars, and of course, the shabby noisy Berlin trams. She thought the trams were the best and most cheerful part of her stay.

No one was actually unkind to Anita. Erna’s friends were absorbed in themselves and their lives. Erna was preoccupied, going out shopping and having her hair done. Anita thought her mother beautiful, but she was always most beautiful when her hair was allowed to fall naturally instead of in stiff crinkly waves – like the pictures of Greta Garbo – except that Erna was even more beautiful. When she was not having her hair done her mother was always rushing off to cafes where crowds of people laughed and smoked and drank and talked, always talked, and never ever did anything interesting.

The seals in the pond at the zoo were charming and funny. She would have loved to take one home to keep in the bath but she had only been taken to the zoo once. And the Tiergarten with its grass and trees would have been fun if there had been anyone to play with but there wasn’t. The highlight of the visit was a ride in a rowing boat on the Wannsee. A youngish man named Hugo with oiled hair and a pencil-thin moustache rowed the boat and talked without stopping at Erna. There were ducks and Anita trailed her hand in the water and hated Hugo and wished that he would be quiet and row gently across the pale glinting water forever. Whenever her mother’s friends spoke of Hugo they lifted their eyebrows at each other and laughed.

The Berlin flats were always full, or seemed to be full, of glossy young men in immaculately tailored English suits, pale creatures, sleek as seals but never as entertaining, whose every gesture was self-consciously elegant, whose every word was positively and absolutely the last word in boredom and sophistication. Generally, they ignored Anita. Her presence irritated them but they considered themselves too well-bred to show their irritation. They drew up their sprawling legs politely as she passed but never for a moment looked at her or acknowledged her existence, while a passing dog they might have reached out to pat. Anita hated them all, aware of the withering disdain in their cold ignoring eyes.

Erna went out most evenings stunningly gowned and perfumed. Alone in her bedroom Anita fretted and grieved, torn between childish anger and a despair that made her feel frighteningly empty. Her moods never lasted long. She sighed, got up, trailed round the room, played with her shadow on the wall, ended up, always, at the tall window. She stood for hours looking down on the brightly lit street thronged with well-dressed people on the pavements far below. The summer evenings were fine and warm. Cigar smoke drifted up to the window. The leaves of the trees lining the street glowed a pale spring-like green. There was the warm comforting smell of good cooking. Anita hung out of the window yawning, wishing, desperately, that her mother would return early for once. The noises from the street, the hum of conversation, laughter, a car changing gear, a snatch of music from a cafe, gradually subsided. The street emptied. People went home or to some other, livelier part of the city. Soon there was only the occasional rumble of a passing tram, a shout of drunken laughter, a group of Brownshirts, arm-in-arm singing quietly to themselves. Anita’s eyes began to feel small, her toes cold. She went to bed and fell asleep resenting the morning when she would wake to another long boring Berlin day.


But now all around her the Hauptbahnhof clashed and clanged, banged and boomed, huffed and puffed, hissed and steamed. High above her head on the upper level under the huge steel-arched station roof whole trains – engines, carriages, guard’s vans – glided backwards and forwards. There was the delicious smell of steam that would forever after remind her of this perfect summer’s morning smelling of laundries and clean clothes and coffee and sunshine and her long awaited homecoming.

Opa and Oma, and Erna, her so beautiful beloved mother, stood smiling happily down at her, and her childish happiness was so great and the station so exciting that she gave a little skip of joy, which made everyone laugh aloud and passers-by smile. She gave another, hopeful, little skip but the adults had resumed their conversation. Opa, in his lightweight summer suit and his white straw hat with the old-fashioned rolled brim, leant negligently on his walking stick, slightly apart, eyeing a group of pretty blonde Bund Deutscher Mädel, members of the Nazi League of German Girls, while Oma and her mother talked and laughed and gossiped and smiled as if they would never stop.

The platforms of the Hauptbahnhof were crowded with travellers. There were uniforms everywhere: the field grey of the Wehrmacht, the pale blue of the Luftwaffe, the sickly yellow of the Sturmabteilung, the stormtroopers of the Nazi party, the black-and-silver of the SS and half a dozen other, unnameable uniforms, amongst them the dignified but humbly aspiring navy blue of mere railway officialdom. Anita, twisting round on her mother’s hand, stared rudely and wished that the adults would hurry up so that they could all go home. Doors stood open all along the carriages of the Berlin Express from which they had just alighted. Passengers streamed towards the exits. Oma and Erna, still talking over Anita’s small dark bobbing head, began to drift down the platform.

Amongst the crowds on the concourse, Grandfather Georg Friedrich, who was strolling a half a pace ahead suddenly stopped and put out his arm to restrain his little party. Involuntarily they took a step back. Suddenly they were surrounded by a tightly packed crowd of people who had fallen respectfully back on either side, making a narrow pathway. Anita, crushed between muscular adult legs, struggled and protested and burst through the front rank like a pea expelled from a pod. The crowd stood awed and quiet. No one smiled. Erna put her finger to her lips. Grandmother Anna frowned down at Anita and shook her head in reproach. Grandfather Georg Friedrich stood scowling ferociously into the distance.

The Hauptbahnhof fell suddenly silent. Not a train moved anywhere. Then an engine, as if unable to restrain itself, made a prolonged farting noise. Anita blushed. The noise was so improper. So impolite. Grandfather Georg Friedrich hastily covered his face, concealing his great white moustache, his suddenly twinkling eyes, behind a huge white handkerchief. A shiver ran through the crowd, a whisper, a soft intake of breath like the rustling of soft new leaves.

A little man in a peaked cap and a yellow uniform. Riding breeches, tall highly polished boots. Thin, frail looking, limping along at a good pace between the crowd. Round shouldered, narrow faced, gypsy dark, sharp chinned. Behind him a retinue of uniformed officials, strutting, solemn. Suddenly the swish of cloth against cloth, arms rising everywhere outstretched in awed salute. The little man caught Anita’s eye in passing, gave her a tired smile. A voice, hardly more than a strangled whisper: “Imagine. The Reichs Propaganda Minister himself.”

Behind Anita Opa harrumphed loudly.

“Goebbels,” he said in a loud scornful voice. People turned to look at him, drew away. Oma snatched his arm, fury in her eyes. “That’s enough. For God’s sake think where you are.”

Opa fumed all the way home in the taxi. “Bloody little monkey on a stick,” he shouted. “Dirty little cripple. Filthy liar. Gypsy forebears I shouldn’t wonder. Damned Jews probably into the bargain.” The veins stood out in Opa’s cheeks. He went pink, then red. His eyes flashed and his moustache drooped. Anita tried not to listen. Opa angry was too frightening. Oma took Opa’s hand in hers and patted it consolingly. She smiled at Anita and narrowed her eyes significantly. That meant: don’t take any notice, keep quiet, and behave yourself.

Opa rested his chin on both hands on the handle of his walking stick. “Now they want a war. That beastly little ape and his beloved Führer want a war. A WAR mind you. Criminals and scum the lot of them, and mad into the bargain. Dressed up like third rate tram conductors and Heil Hitler! this and Heil Hitler! that and putting any poor bugger who expresses an opinion about the weather into one of their filthy camps. And did you see the way the crowd licked that little swine’s boots?”

“Hush now, dear, the driver will hear you.”

Oma craned her head round to try to see the taxi driver’s face through the glass partition. “This one seems alright, but one never knows nowadays, does one? They say most of them are in the pay of the Gestapo.”

“Those bastards. Wait till they get into the trenches. A war might knock some sense into their thick heads.”

“That’s quite enough. Think of the child. Anyway it’s all talk. There will be no war. Will there?” Oma appealed earnestly to Erna who was too busy with her lipstick to reply. She sucked her lips into invisibility, released them with a soft smacking sound, gave herself a critical glance in the mirror of her compact, snapped it shut and put it back in her handbag smiling to herself.

“There was a story about Goebbels going round in Berlin. It seems that he’s been carrying on with the wife of Frohlich, the actor. Frohlich found them together and proceeded to beat up Goebbels.”

Grandmother Anna put her hand to her mouth. “But is it true?”

“Of course it’s true, the man’s a sewer rat, a rotten little cripple, he’s probably not even man enough…”

“Georg Friedrich, please. The child…”

“I don’t think so. They say Frohlich had been out with Emil Jannings and when he went to get his car he found his wife and Goebbels together in the back seat. Unfortunately, it’s known that he only went as far as to beat his wife in private afterwards.”

“Disgusting! With all their talk that’s what they’re really like when no one’s looking. Quite shameful,” Grandmother Anna breathed indignantly. “But what’s the talk in Berlin? Will there be war?”

Anita pressed her nose hard against the window glass. She was gobbling up the city. Her city. The familiar trams, so superior to those in Berlin, the idly strolling people, the traffic, the flower sellers in the sunshine on the street corners, the baroque towers and domes and facades and spires and weather worn stones of the old, the ancient buildings of the city in which she had been born and which she already loved. People, stolid but relaxed citizens, stood leisurely on street corners gossiping in the sun-warmed air. So different from the nervy heedlessness of the Berliners. Everything calm and solid and reassuring but exciting because it was dear and familiar and homely. Returning to the city was like putting back on a skin that had somehow, temporarily, been sloughed off, leaving her itching and uncomfortable and vulnerable. With the city wrapped safely around her again Anita was happy as only a child can be on a fine summer’s day with the taste of the sun in her mouth and the air soft and gentle and caressing on her skin as it will never be again as long as she lives.

Far above Anita’s small head the adult voices droned on in the cold rarified stratosphere in which children had ceased to exist. Remote voices coming into and going out of focus, mostly vague, blurred, usually top heavy with long unintelligible words too difficult to understand. Most of Anita’s life was determined in that chilly upper atmosphere, except when firm hands reached down to tidy her hair, or adjust impatiently her clothes. Sometimes strangers swooped down to earth. Large lippy faces wanting moistly to kiss and be kissed, smelling nastily of tobacco and schnapps or perfume and face powder and sometimes, ugh! of half-digested food and drink. Familiar voices came down from on high, gaining weight in the lower denser atmosphere, voices coaxing, cajoling, commanding, teasing, loving, reproving. Opa’s warm deep voice. Oma’s shrill not-to-be-denied tone of authority, her mother’s voice patient and gentle; never unkind or hurtful. Anita breathed on the glass making moist clouds, wrapping the city more tightly round her, shutting out the adults, wriggling unobtrusively, quietly convulsed with happiness.

Opa was still fuming to himself, muttering under his breath, snorting and harrumphing, tapping his stick angrily on the floor, hot and pink in his annoyance. Suddenly he leaned forward. “The old King should never have gone. Do you hear? Never.”

The low monotone of talk stopped. Oma and Erna looked at each other.

“Yes, father.” Erna indulging, patient.

“Do you know what he said in ’18 when the revolutionaries came to ask him to join? Well, do you?”

“No, father. What did he say?”

“He said,” looking from Oma to Anna and back again, “he said ‘Goodbye, have a republic if you want one, I won’t be responsible for blood in the Schloss-Strasse’. What do you think of that now?”

“Very good.”

“Yes, very good, father.”

“Isn’t it?”

Opa gave his stick a triumphant twirl and sat back beaming. Oma and Erna nodded and looked serious and turned back to each other to resume their conversation.

The taxi began the journey into the suburbs. Spires and domes and towers receded, floating, glinting in the sunlight. Erna, chic as always in her brightly flower patterned summer frock and elegant wide brimmed summer hat sat silent. Homecoming always depressed her spirits. The city was beautiful but staid. At first she would miss the lively cheekiness of Berlin. But only for a little while. Such bad luck encountering Goebbels at the Hauptbahnhof. Father would be in a filthy temper for the rest of the day. His ancient story about the King was only his funny way of trying to be nice again, to apologise. His liver must be in tatters. Politics. Always damnable politics. As if anyone who mattered really cared.

Anita’s mother was a-political, always had been. She had grown up comfortably in Königsbergerstrasse a dreamy romantic adolescent, hardly affected by, hardly aware of, the gross thunder and lightning of political events. Even in 1918 at the end of the Great War she had only vaguely been aware of the disturbances, the riots and commotions down in the city. The food shortage was at its tedious worst, even in Königsbergerstrasse, and her father had come home almost in tears, to announce that Friedrich August, King of Saxony, their King, had abdicated and revolution was rife in the city streets.

A great unnecessary fuss, Erna considered, when there was hardly a bite left to eat in the house. Two days later the hateful, depressing and inconvenient Great War was over. But that only meant more politics. For days it was impossible to go into the city. Crowds surged through the streets. There was a demagogue on every other street corner and there were flags everywhere. The red flags of the communists, the red, white and black of the nationalist Freikorps, the sinister black of some incomprehensible political or philosophical splinter group. Intermittently, ideologies clashed and there was the sound of gunfire. An unwilling Erna stayed safe at home and all the agitation and turmoil died down as she had always known it would.

The 1920s came and the first popular wireless sets. Erna soon learned to tune out the stations broadcasting news items and tuned in only the stations with the best, the liveliest, the most insouciant new music, usually vivid exciting jazz. She too, like Anita, had a cold remote stratosphere containing tiresome solemn figures: politicians and generals and statesmen whose barely intelligible voices came into and out of focus, vague, blurred, top heavy with economic and political jargon that was not worth bothering to try to understand. Erna was, and always had been, and always would be, she believed, a non-political creature.


Germany 1944-1945

Grandmother Anna got dressed in her best clothes, a mannish, well-tailored tweed costume, put on a reminiscently Bavarian hat with a long defiant feather in it, thought of the heat outside, but still slung a fox fur round her neck, and prepared to humble herself yet again.

She caught a tram into the city, grateful for the cooling rush of air through the open doors and windows, and walked the rest of the way to Gestapo headquarters on Münchner Platz. The heat was intolerable. The river shone dazzlingly in the sunshine making spots dance before her eyes. Trees shaded the pavements most of the way but she arrived drenched in perspiration, tired, fearful.

She was taken to a waiting room where a bitter-eyed, supercilious young man with only one arm, listened sceptically to her story. He interrupted her rudely, asked several questions in a disinterested monotone and sat for a moment in silence looking into the distance over Anna’s shoulder. “Stay here,” he ordered, and left the room.

Anna tried to forgive his rudeness and his arrogance. He had lost an arm, in Russia probably; there were deep lines of pain round his mouth; he had a thankless job to do; the choice of jobs for a one armed man was limited. She ran out of excuses. He was still hateful and insufferable.

She heard his voice outside the waiting room door:
“That old woman is here again. She thinks we’ve got her daughter or something..”

A voice replied. Afterwards there was laughter. The voices faded into the distance and the silence filled with the humdrum sounds of bureaucratic activity, footfalls echoing along corridors, voices murmuring, a telephone ringing urgently in the distance, a typewriter clattering, the clock on the waiting room wall ticking, making a harsh neglected sound.

There must be cells where prisoners were kept. Somewhere below probably, where they would be well-hidden from the public. She knew of the interrogation rooms, and of course the small cobbled courtyard where the guillotine stood. Everyone knew about that.

The thought that Erna might be only a few metres away gave her an unpleasant feeling of light-headedness. She gripped the handbag on her lap more tightly, braced herself against the straight back of her chair. It wouldn’t do to faint. She got up and paced the room. Cells, execution yards: it was difficult to imagine them in this dry, calm, tedious atmosphere with its smells of ink and paper and dust and ersatz coffee. She was kept waiting for three hours, growing increasingly agitated as fear rose and gripped her like a fever. Towards the end of the third hour she took from the handbag on her lap a lace edged handkerchief and a bottle of Cologne water. She soaked the handkerchief, pressed it to her brow, her neck, her wrists, inhaled its cooling refreshment. The headache that had begun to plague her stayed. A sharp pain beat like a drum in her temples. The waiting room seemed unbearably hot and stuffy.

She closed her eyes and took deep laborious breaths. The pain in her temples intensified. She put away the handkerchief and the Cologne water in her handbag and closed her eyes again. The door opened and the young man with only one arm came in. She opened her eyes. He was bending forward peering intently, his face close. “What is it with you, Oma? Are you unwell? Why don’t you stay at home where you belong?”

He straightened up, put his hand out to take her elbow and helped her to her feet.

“I was busy. We’re always busy in this place. I’d forgotten you were here. You should have told someone.”

She gripped his wrist, holding it more tightly than she had intended, her nails digging into the flesh. He pulled his wrist free, stood for a moment rubbing it where she had gripped him.

“My daughter, I’ve come about my daughter.”

“Yes. We know all about that, but there’s no daughter here. Never heard of her. She’s run off with some man I expect.”

“No. She’s here. I know she’s here. Your people came and took her.”

“Go home, Oma. Have a rest. You’re imagining things. We don’t know anything about your daughter. Go home and don’t come back. We’ve better things to do than listen to nonsense from people like you. I mean it. We don’t want to see you again. Understand?”

She nodded, lost for words, got shakily to her feet. The one-armed young man watched her coolly. She went at last and he was able to return to his office.

The dapple of sunshine on the pavement outside blinded her. Leaves rustled overhead. The warm air smelled of newly cut grass. She imagined that she could smell roses. She walked slowly away. The river came into view, the hot breeze wrinkling its surface, a million minuscule suns sparkling in its ripples. Her anger cooled. Erna was alive. She knew it in her heart, and she knew it because she was sure that otherwise something would have been said, some hint casually dropped. It was their style. She quickened her pace. Erna must still be alive. There was still hope.

A tram was just leaving. She ran for it, holding on to her hat, her handbag swinging, pulled herself aboard. The conductress shook her head, called out in front of everyone,
“Hey, Grossmütterchen, get your mind off your young man and take care how you get on my tram, eh?”

Smiles. Anna had to smile herself. She was breathless and dishevelled, her hat askew, the ridiculous feather in it badly bent. She shook a belligerent fist at the conductress, which made all the people on the tram laugh the more. She blushed and sat very quiet for the rest of the journey.


One day soon after Anna’s visit to Münchner Platz, Anita was taken from school by the blonde Gestapo man. She was called from her class and expected to go to the Principal’s office but was told instead to go to the playground. She knew that it was too much to hope that her mother had been released, but she was hopeful. She ran excitedly along the corridor and out through the door into the playground, straight into the slimy clinging folds of the leather overcoat of the blonde Gestapo man. Before she could extricate herself he had taken tight hold of her hand.

“Eager to see me, is it then, Anitalein? That’s good. We’ve got a surprise for you. Come.”

He jerked at her hand. She pulled back and was tugged roughly forwards. Broken Nose was waiting at the school gates. He took hold of her other hand, an ugly grimace of dislike on his face. She made her face at him and he threatened her with his upraised free hand.

The blonde man said, “Cut it out, Gregor. Don’t be such an arsehole.”

“She made a face. She’s always doing it.”

“And that’s a threat to the Reich?”

Anita waited till their attention was concentrated on an exchange of insults and suddenly tried to pull her hands free. The consequence was that her hands were held tighter, more painfully. It was easier to fall into step between the two men than to hang back, be dragged along, and have her arms agonisingly wrenched. “We’re going to see your dog whatsisname. You’ll like that won’t you?”

Broken Nose smirked, jerked savagely at her hand.

“He’s in the army now. They’re teaching him to salute, march, and sit to attention.”

“Keep your big mouth shut, Gregor. Have you been missing old Ponto, Anitalein?”

“He’s hurting my arm.”

“I said cut it out, Gregor.”

“I wasn’t doing anything. The kid’s a liar, like her mother.”

Anita twisted round, almost broke free, kicked Broken Nose hard on his ankle. He groaned and hopped on one foot.

“Don’t talk about my mother like that.”

“Jesus Christ! I’ll kill the little bitch.”

“You’ll have my foot in your guts if you don’t shut it Gregor. Leave the kid alone.”

They walked on along unfamiliar streets, Broken Nose fuming, the blonde man calm and smiling. Questions. The same old questions. Does your mother listen to the wireless? What does she say about the war. Tell us the names of some of the people who come to your house. What does your mother say about them? And an ominous change of direction, a frontal attack. How often does your mother listen to the Black Sender? It’s alright. We know. We understand that she’s interested in other countries so she has to listen. And what does she say about the Führer?

Two men in long leather coats walking casually along the street holding the hands of a child walking between them. An echt deutsch homely scene. Housewives chatting on doorsteps smiled as they passed, the men talking to the child, the child smiling innocently up at the blonde man (her father?), shaking her head, nodding at random as if having a private childish conversation with herself.

The blonde man’s mouth thinned, tension lines grew round his jaw, his voice grated. Broken Nose whistled softly to himself, his head in the air, pretending indifference, his pursed lips saying: See, I told you so. The walking went on interminably. Anita wanted to stop and rest. Her legs and arms ached. Her head buzzed with the repeated questions. She had pins-and-needles in her fingers where they were being held too tightly. In all her confused loathing of the blonde man and her detestation of Broken Nose she understood that they were trying to trick her. Everything, the lies, the questions, the too tightly held hands, her buzzing head, her aching limbs only provoked and enraged her. She didn’t believe that she was being taken to see Ponto. Her dog, she had made up her mind, was dead. The long forced walk, the questioning, the promise that she would see Ponto again were all lies to try to make her say things about her mother.

Pain and indignation gave her strength. She kicked out savagely, at the blonde man this time, tried to wrench her hands free. They were in a quiet street. There was no one about or she would have shouted and screamed and sobbed for help. But it would have been useless. Her display of noisy fireworks would have been lost in the warm after-lunch somnolence that had sent everyone indoors. Blonde Man and Broken Nose simply tightened their grip on her hands and moved outwards. Her kicks fell on empty air.

The pace of the march quickened. She found herself being tugged along, panting for breath, her short legs compelled into an exhausting run. When, at last, they slowed to a walk, the school had been left far behind. All around were fields of young green wheat and barley. Birds sang in the bright sunshine. Distantly there was the dark green of a forest. A little breeze set swaying the tall green stalks in the fields.

Ahead was a long low barrack-like building set among trees behind a formidable chain-link fence. The sentry in the box at the entrance gates gave them a sleepy cursory nod. Broken Nose released Anita’s hand, gave the sentry a casual wave, and walked away towards the building. Anita blew on her hand. The returning circulation hurt. The blonde man pulled her along outside the chain-link fence to the corner nearest the building.

She stumbled on the thick grass underfoot and was jerked upright. A bee hummed. A cloud like a splodge of thick cream in the sky made a blue shadow that slid across the grass, the building, the corner of the fence where they stood. The blonde man’s attention was on the building. The sun came out again. He blinked, narrowed his eyes against its brightness. Anita pulled hard against his hand. She bit viciously at the imprisoning fingers. Suddenly there was the warm salty taste of blood in her mouth. The blonde man said “Shit!”, but held on to her. He scrabbled in his pocket for a handkerchief, pressed it against the tears in his skin. He squatted down beside Anita, glowering, his face a dully inflamed red. He thrust his face close to hers, breathing hard, poisoning the air with his breath.

“Listen to me you little shit bitch. If you try that again you’ll get my fist in your face. Understand?”

He stood up.

“Look,” he said.

Broken Nose swaggered from the building, an arm negligently outstretched, clutching a lead at the end of which a giant black Schnauzer strained and pranced in the sunshine. The dog circled, bit in play at the lead, was brought up short at a vicious tug from Broken Nose. Anita tried to swallow the heart beating in her throat. Broken Nose brought the dog up close to the fence.

“Ponto. Ponto.” Anita whispered.

She thrust her hands through the fence deep into the rough black coat. Ponto craned his head round. A moist pink tongue snaked through the wire licking ecstatically her nose, her eyes, her mouth. Broken Nose said, “That’s enough,” and pulled Ponto back from the fence. Ponto stood firm, legs stubbornly apart, tugging impatiently at the restraint of the lead, looking with longing at Anita, panting, his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth, his big dark eyes shining.

It was only when her hands began to hurt that Anita realised how fiercely she was gripping the wire of the fence and that her hands were free. She might have turned and run, but there was Ponto leaning forward hard against the lead, his eyes begging.

The blonde man leant against the fence. He lighted a cigarette, watching her, appraising, calculating. “Nice dog you’ve got there, Anitalein. It would be a pity if anything happened to him don’t you think?” He sucked hard on his cigarette, inhaled, blew out a jet of pale blue smoke, watched it uncoil, drift through the yellow sunshine to lose itself against the blue of the sky.

“So now you can answer some questions for us. And we’ll have the truth this time, unless of course you want something nasty to happen to your nice little doggie.”

He waved the cigarette in Anita’s face. The smoke stung her eyes, made her blink.

“Look at me can’t you! When did your mother start listening to the Black Sender? She’s always listened to it hasn’t she? It’s alright, we know. She’s told us everything. Come on, tell us. We only want to be sure.”

Anita ignored him, turned back to Ponto. The blonde man threw down his half-smoked cigarette and ground it underfoot.

“Very well. We’ll start again. When did your mother start speaking against the Führer?”

The blonde man’s voice bored on through the hot summer afternoon. Questions. More questions. Always the same old stupid questions. The sun beat down, insects hummed in the grass, the distant sentry dozed at his post. Ponto sat down at Broken Nose’s feet, panting quietly, his tongue lolling out in the heat, his eyes always on Anita’s face. The questions went on. Anita ignored them, clung to the wire, concentrating all her attention, all her desperate anguished love on her dog.


Dresden February 14-15, 1945

Beneath the acrid stink there was still a trace of the beautiful familiar comforting smell of her mother’s perfume.

The embrace lasted only a few seconds. Erna held Anita at arm’s length, urgent, deadly serious.

“Liebling, it’s not safe for us to stay here any longer. We’ll go to Weber’s. If they’re alright Frau Weber will take us in until morning. Go and put on your winter boots. Hurry. We have to leave at once. Go. Do it now.”

Erna was a calm, commanding, authoritarian scarecrow. Anita ran off to find her boots. She sat on the floor considering their weight and sturdiness. It seemed quite mad that in the heat from the fires she was expected to wear hot heavy boots. Doing up the laces her fingers suddenly refused to function. She was overcome by the strangeness of it all, of getting ready to leave with houses burning outside in the street, the smoke and smell everywhere, the smashed windows and sooty disorder in the strange flickering light. A lump rose in her throat. She hated to leave the house with all its lovely familiar things; even if it was in a mess, even if the awful shitty war was going to spoil it all. She wanted to go up and clean and tidy her room, set everything to rights again, so that she could stay with all the things she cared about. Erna was calling her name. She finished tying the laces, clumped downstairs to the kitchen. Black-faced, her hair tousled and standing up in spikes, Sophie was holding forth hysterically in a high-pitched almost incoherent stream of words. Erna was holding Sophie by the shoulders, shaking her, shouting,
“Are you sure? Are you certain?” In between shakes she was yelling at the ceiling at the top of her voice, “Anita! Anita! Come here. Hurry.”

Sophie broke free, stood wringing her hands, weeping. “Yes. I’m sure. I told you. I told you. I heard them. A long way off, but I heard them. Oh God, they’re coming back. What are we going to do?”

Erna swung round, saw Anita. “Thank God you’re here,” she said. “Sophie thinks she heard the sirens. Did you hear anything?”

Anna limped into the room, dirty, dishevelled, her hair escaping from its pins, uncoiling in disorder to her shoulders. She was carrying a large gilt and enamel clock in her hand and a small Persian rug rolled up under her arm. Erna opened her mouth, closed it again, said gently: “Mother, you don’t really need those things do you?”

“I heard the sirens going again. We must save what we can.”

“Mother…” Erna’s disbelief and frustration struggled for adequate words. “Mother, don’t you understand? None of that matters now. If we manage to stay alive we can count ourselves lucky. For God’s sake get rid of those things before they kill you. Please. Put them down. Now. Please.”

Anna let the rug fall to the floor, put the clock down gingerly on the table.

“It was too heavy, anyway,” she complained.

The noise of the fires had masked the sound of approaching aircraft. As the first bombs exploded with earth-quaking roars the room was brilliantly, steadily illuminated by the light of a glittering cluster of chandelier flares sailing down out of the thinning clouds. More bombs followed, screaming, whistling, wailing, setting the house rocking in the vehemence of their uproar.

Above the noise of the continuous explosions Erna was screaming:
“Get the blankets. The cellar. Get down to the cellar,” and they were rushing helter-skelter down the stairs again, Erna pushing the others in front of her, hanging on to the walls and stair rails as the rapid succession of giant detonations set the house and everything in it in anguished straining movement. Plaster began falling, bricks and slates came crashing down. A choking dust rose up, half blinding them, making them cough helplessly. The floor at the bottom of the stairs rippled and heaved and threatened to open up under their feet.

Bruised, shaken, gasping for breath, choking on the dry, swirling dust, they collapsed in a heap in the cellar. Light streamed through the blackout as if it had ceased to exist. Anita found herself squashed, protectively, so that she was hardly able to breathe, between her mother and Sophie. Bombs exploded in a continuous ear-shattering, mind-mashing thunder. Erna clung tightly to Anita screaming angrily,
“Keep your mouth open! Keep your mouth open!”

The cellar filled with thick black smoke. There was the acrid pungent smell of millions of sulphur tipped matches being struck. The smoke set them coughing again. Anita struggled free and sat upright in order to be able to cough in earnest. She coughed and coughed until her lungs hurt and her eyes streamed and her chest felt as if it was on fire.

Erna and Sophie, keeping low, frantically soaked blankets in the fire buckets. Water slopped on to the floor, dripped and dribbled from the blankets. A blanket dropped over Anita’s head. She was enveloped in cool damp darkness. She pressed the wet material to her forehead, her eyes, her mouth. Her coughing slowly subsided.

Shrouded in the soaking wet blanket Erna took a deep breath and started up the steps out of the cellar. Dense smoke met her. She held an edge of the blanket across her face but the smoke and fumes penetrated the wet material, making her cough, half blinding her. She dropped to her knees and began to crawl up the stairs, hands outstretched feeling for each step. Blast had jammed shut the big double doors of the garage. She struggled to get them open, the water heavy blanket slipping down and hindering her efforts. She gave up trying to open the doors, rearranged the blanket round her and crawled up to the next floor. The house shook violently as if it was about to collapse. She had to lie still until the shaking subsided. In all the heat and noise and confusion she became aware of a change in the tempo of the attack. Bombs were still falling, still exploding, but becoming subordinate, a deep base accompaniment to the rising protracted thunder of flames being sucked upward by the scorching wind that made walls shake, set floors trembling and furniture moving, making mere matter animate and temporarily insane. The wind drove the smoke demented. Light grew in intensity, faded almost into darkness as the wind drove the smoke crazily before it through the house twisting and billowing as it tried to escape and more and more smoke drove in through the shattered windows and doors behind it.

She fought her way stubbornly upward towards the bedrooms, snatched and beaten and buffeted by the wind that grew steadily hotter and burned painfully on her exposed flesh. At the last landing she was driven back. The thunder of the flames filled her ears, growing and expanding inside her skull as if her head was about to explode. She blacked out, collapsed, tumbled down the stairs behind her in a limp shapeless bundle of wet blanket.

She was unconscious only a few seconds. The house heaved and shook under her. The bombardment was growing in intensity but the explosions was now completely concealed in the noise of the tempest of flames and howling wind. In her confusion she thought she might try to reach the bedrooms again. She had left one of the emergency suitcases up there when they returned to the house. Commonsense returned. Only a lunatic would attempt it. The heat was impossible. She would die if she tried to go any further. Crawling back down to the cellar, she found the other emergency case, the one with all the legal documents in it. Anita’s little rucksack was with it.

Anita only became aware of her mother’s absence when she came back down on hands and knees into the cellar shouting:
“Soak the blankets again. Hurry. We must get out before the house goes up.”

Under heavy dripping blankets they fought their way up through the smoke and noise to the garage. Erna led the way through the intense heat and suffocating smoke. By some freakish chance the glass of the three small garage windows had escaped the blast. She tore down the blackout material. Intense heat and light stabbed into the garage. Sophie screamed. Involuntarily they backed away. Anita shielded her eyes, unable to look away from the window panes. A thick dark liquid, oily and evil was moving slowly down the outside of the glass, sagging stickily, making grotesque swollen fingers against the light of the burning houses. A finger of treacley liquid touched the wood of the window frame which burst, hissing, into flames. Anita stood fascinated by the blazing frame, unable to move until Erna pulled her away. The next window was already ablaze. Erna tore at the blackout on the last window. The glass was still intact and it was clear. She raised the emergency suitcase, sent it smashing through the glass, battering away with it until the last gleaming splinter was gone.

She scrambled through the window-frame first, into the noise and light and smoke and a scorching storm of wind. Burning fragments, incandescent cinders, clouds of sparks, went sailing overhead. The wind grappled with her, tried to throw her to the ground. She put out a hand to the wall to steady herself and hastily withdrew it with a gasp of pain, her skin blistered from the heat of the bricks. Anita tumbled through the window frame and Erna pushed her down to try to keep her out of the full force of the wind. Anna, struggling and protesting, had to be helped through next. Sophie jumped down after her on to the melting asphalt of the yard. They huddled down close to the garage wall, averting their eyes from the intense yellow glare of the flames and the continuous white flashes of exploding bombs, dazed and intimidated by the fury of the firestorm rising all around and the hot hurricane-force wind that threatened to send them sprawling. They crouched down, disoriented, fearful, not daring to move for long minutes. Erna’s hands were throbbing. The noise was rising, achieving physicality, thrashing flesh, bruising bone, blunting thought. Beside them the wall had begun visibly to shake. Erna forgot the pain of her hands. They were going to have to move away from the building, and move quickly.

Shouting, though no one could hear her, pushing, snarling, threatening, she somehow got them to link hands and move away, cowering down at every fresh explosion, past the Goliath three-wheeler truck, out through the gates and into the street where the wind battered at them with giant fists so that they had to clutch at their sodden blankets and cling to one another to stop themselves being knocked flat.

Anita risked a quick look back through the little opening she made in her blanket. The upper floors of the house were ablaze, immense flames were leaping high into the sky. Everything was alight, her bedroom, her clothes, her doll’s house, her Max and Moritz puppets, all her toys. Everything. Nothing would survive the fire, not even the metal rings that Opa had fixed in the lintel of her bedroom door for her swing. She was too numbed, too battered by the tumult around her to feel sorry. She watched and a floor collapsed, a wall fell. The grand piano, blazing, its iron frame incandescent, plunged downwards, a giant, plangent, fiery harp amongst the roaring leaping flames.

As if freshly fuelled by the piano the flames blazed up. Sparks filled the air. Suddenly the wind grew immensely in strength, punching, pummeling, buffeting, tugging insanely at blankets, clothes, limbs, bodies. Instinctively they all crouched down close to the smoking, smouldering, brightly gleaming black of the tarmac, making themselves as small as possible against the immense force of the wind. Anita’s eyes watered continuously as if she were weeping. Her lungs ached from the superheated air. Huge clouds of sparks and burning cinders shot up skywards from burning buildings in a gargantuan firework display.

Underfoot the melting tar sucked greedily at the soles of her boots. Held firmly for protection between the three women, she pressed the wet blanket against her face. Warm wet wool caught cloyingly against her tongue. Unable to help herself she heaved, retched, tried without success to vomit.

Faint at first, piercing thinly through the uproar, there came the sound of a bomb falling towards them. The women crouched lower, pressing tightly round Anita, making it difficult for her to breathe again, creating a suffocating panic as the scream approaching overhead rose in pitch, became unmistakably, agonisingly human. Anita struggled free, breathed again. The fold of blanket fell from her face. Overhead, the air was filled with flying objects: a blazing chair turning over and over, the huge glowing branch of a tree, charred books their pages blackened and flailing in the wind, a child’s pram, rags of fiery clothing.

She watched in horror as a woman, her clothes blazing, was blown through the air high overhead like a bit of blazing newspaper, screaming screams that went on ringing in her ears long after the screaming stopped and the burning woman broke into two grotesquely flaring pieces and dropped out of sight into the raging fires. Amongst all the burning aerial debris she was followed by a fiery cross cartwheeling erratically overhead. The cross was a child of six or seven, ablaze from head to foot, arms and legs outstretched, hair alight, mercifully silent but still recognisable as Frau Kurtz’s little son from a house down the street. Anita hid her face in the blanket. Her shudders shook her from head to foot.

A voice came loud and peremptory. Erna, her lips touching Anita’s ear, her voice hoarse, strained: “We must go. Now. The tar. Come on. Move.”

Clinging on to one another the women began, slowly, to move, dragging their boots one foot at a time from the clinging stickiness of the tar, each boot dragging long shining black skeins behind them as they struggled free of the viscous deadly bitumen. Every step demanded extreme effort; a long desperate pull holding on to someone else’s arm so as not to overbalance. Down the road the tarmac was already alight, burning up fiercely in several places. Flames roared and thrashed against the sky in every direction. Fragments of still burning ash in the pounding searing wind beat against their blankets. Smoke swirled round them, cleared, swirled round them again.

©Edward Kynaston