Authors: Hugo Hamilton
For Coman and Theresa
They must have been out of their minds with fear. They ran down to the basement holding hands, shouting, still half asleep, crashing into each other in the blackout. The children could feel the adults shaking. They could hear the panic in their voices. They could hear the sirens howling through the apartment blocks and the deep hum of organ music around the city as the planes arrived overhead.
When the first of the bombs came whistling down through the air, they huddled together praying. ‘Now it’s our turn, God help us.’ They were so frightened that they lost their personalities. Some of them marked the nights of bombing in chalk on cellar walls. Defenceless creatures clustered together underground, holding their hands over their ears, while above them the black formation of planes crossed the night sky. Wave upon wave of them with deathly silences in between. They followed the descent of each bomb, trying to guess how close it was. They felt the earth jump each time and felt the force of the blast in their hair, along the scalp. It blew out the windows and sucked the slates off the roof. It cut through buildings and opened them up like the cross section of a doll’s house, showing how people lived inside with their neat interiors, beds, dressers, tables and tea sets. Some of them perished in their apartments, either too late to flee into the basement or else
deciding to stay and ignore their fear, comforting themselves with the last of the wine and their doomed black humour while the sky lit up with dropping candles, like a Christmas tree. The phosphor came spilling down the stairs, into the living rooms, gleaming white luminous fire trickling along the bedroom walls until everything was in flames.
Gregor Liedmann was asleep in his bed and never even woke up. He was almost three years old and went straight from his dream into death, surrounded by his pencils and his writing pad and the wooden ship that his grandfather Emil had made for him. His mother said he was very good with words. He was an early speaker and was already counting and writing the alphabet. Large letters sloping down the page at an angle. That’s how he went to sleep every night, with the writing pad under his pillow and the sharp pencils around him which his mother then had to remove very carefully like a patient game of Mikado sticks to make sure he didn’t wake up again. He was dreaming about spitting. He used to watch the two older boys across the landing holding on to the banisters and spitting down into the stairwell. He observed the spit falling silently, swaying on its way down and eventually hitting the polished floor below with a click. He got into trouble one day when the old woman with all the hats suddenly looked up and saw him. The older boys had disappeared by the time she came up the stairs to make a complaint, so he had to listen to her saying what a disgusting child he was, spitting down on people’s heads. And though his mother told the woman that it was not the worst thing she could be hit by in these times, she was cross with Gregor afterwards and said she would take the pencils off him if he ever spat down the stairwell again.
Now it was one of the big blockbusters coming for him. Four thousand pounds of black steel packed with high explosives like a hard chocolate cake. His mother came running through the hallway, but she was thrown back by the blast and landed on the far side of the house with the ceiling on top of her. They found her in a bed of plaster, under a blanket of entwined batons and criss-crossed joists. When she woke up, they had to hold her back because she wanted to continue running into Gregor’s bedroom which no longer existed. The back of the house was missing entirely. The boy gone. No sign of him left, or his room. Nothing but a shell of unfamiliar walls, rooms cut in half, missing doors and flaming architraves. If it wasn’t for the brightness of the fires all around and the smoke and the neighbours holding her back, she would have walked straight out over the cliff, down into that emptiness left behind by her son.
They were still putting out the fires the next day, clearing the debris from the streets to make way for transport. The trees were raining cinders. People were lost and disoriented, walking in a daze. Everyone coughing, searching in the rubble, rescue workers picking up beams of blackened wood to see who might be underneath. The day was dark. And cold. There was a terrible silence and clouds of smoke hung over the city, keeping back the sun. Some of them got the idea of wearing bathing goggles against the dust. People were being carried away on pieces of wood, in barrows, on children’s prams. Bodies covered in grey dust, naked, unrecognisable, red and black and pink, shrunken with no features left. Some of them fused together in the very position in which they had died so they had to be carried out in a charred embrace. In some places they found nothing more than a trace of life left
behind, a liquid, a piece of grease, wax remains around a cup or a bent spoon. A melted button. Many of the basements were connected in a warren so they could escape from one house to the next all the way down the street. In one corridor underground, they found dead people huddled on both sides of a steel door, all hoping it would lead to air. The injured could be heard crying and moaning. A young girl standing on the street in a state of delusion with her head wrapped in a scarf, asking for an apple. Does anyone have an apple for me? she kept trying to say, even though most of her jaw was missing and she could hardly enunciate the words. And everywhere the names being called. Names echoing along the blackened hulls of apartment blocks, deep in the backyards where walls were still collapsing without notice in a profound rumble, making people run away in every direction all over again.
Gregor. Gregor, my pet.
She wandered through the streets, searching and calling for him as if he was playing outside with the other children. She returned to the ruin of her apartment block throughout the day and was comforted by neighbours. They had their own losses to deal with, but they took her in and shared their food with her. At night she would wake them all up calling for her son, believing that she had heard his voice. They knew the doctors had told her she could not have any more children. So she clung to the hope of finding her boy alive, searching for him every day, finding nothing after seven days but a shard of a pencil. She stopped to pick it up. The lead was missing, but she could clearly see the rounded imprint of a tiny black tube running through the wood. She held it in her hand for a while, knowing that it must have belonged to Gregor, then walked to the park where they were burying the dead. There she dug a small
hole in the earth with a stick in order to bury this piece of a pencil, kneeling down for some time and praying for him.
She could no longer sense cold or hunger, only the loss of her child.
‘What will I tell my husband?’ she kept asking, which some took as a sign of extraordinary love and optimism. The more cynical and grief-hardened spoke with brutal clarity and told her she would be lucky if her husband ever came back. She cried openly when they said that. Spoke his name softly as if he was in the next room and would come out any minute to stand by her side. She spent her days wandering about, isolated in her grief, with nothing more to lose, and maybe that is what separated her from the others who were still focused with such vehemence on survival. While she increasingly lost interest in living, unable even to nourish herself, they continued their instinctive hunt for opportunities, searching for little deals and bargains that would help to keep them alive. They spoke with inspired doom and joked about their own fate, a sign that they understood the value of life all the more. They developed extraordinary faculties for suppressing their grief and concentrated on sniffing out food and warmth, chocolate, coffee, cigarettes, clinging on to the little luxuries that gave dignity and status to their lives. She had lost all these survival skills. She lost her sense of direction and could not recognise the streets any more. All the familiarity had been taken away. In some places the street names still stood on the corner, giving the numbers of the houses, though the street itself had disappeared and the whole district began to look like open country.
They could not understand a woman who no longer cared for herself. They feared the contagion in her grief. There was worse to come when the city fell into enemy
hands and they made it clear they could not look after her indefinitely. She had gone from being a mother back to being a child, so they urged her to get out of the city. It’s what she should have done long ago, they said, before the bombing started. She was more of a country girl, from outside Nuremberg. So they helped her write letters home to her father and mother. A neighbour managed to get her a train ticket south, halfway home as far as Jena.
So she fled the unforgettable smell of damp charred wood that still stuck in the back of everyone’s throat, walked through more and more collapsed streets, took shelter from another wave of bombing in an underground station along the way, until she got to the southern cross where she waited for days to be allowed on a train. Everything was in chaos. A journey that took only three to four hours before the war now took her almost five days. People were fleeing everywhere, soldiers making their way to the front in the opposite direction. Luggage left behind. Children separated from their parents. Lawless boys roaming around, fighting and stealing food, anything they could get from vulnerable people on the move. Even more distressing, an adult taking a piece of bread off a child.
She stayed with some elderly people in Jena who had lost two sons in the war. After weeks and weeks, when it was already spring, her father finally came to collect her. As it turned out, her mother was already dead and her older brother was missing in action on the front. So her father seemed more and more determined to rescue what was left of the family and came to take her down south to safety. He came in his truck and perhaps it was one of the miracles of war, that he found his daughter despite all the odds. They watched as he embraced her and held her for a long
time against his big round stomach before they left again, heading south, away from the Russian front.
Her father had avoided conscription for the early part of the war because of illness. Overweight and unable to walk very well, he continued working as a delivery man, groceries and hardware. But as the war was approaching the end and they began calling up old men and young boys, he was called up too, in spite of his poor health. They placed him in a uniform that was too small for him and gave him orders to deliver a squad of new recruits to the front line and to return with a consignment of weapons that were in need of repair. But instead of delivering the faulty weapons, he held on to them in the back of the truck and invented a job for himself that would keep him out of the war. With instructions to that effect on paper, he and his childhood friend Max went from town to town on a bogus mission, collecting defective weapons. An ingenious scheme at a time when every weapon counted. As the war began to be fought village by village, farm by farm, this phantom mission seemed more and more credible. He had turned shirking into a heroic piece of patriotism. The back of his truck had a collection of old rifles with tags indicating their origins and what was wrong with the firing mechanism or with the barrel. He never took them anywhere to be repaired, just drove around with the same weapons, adding one or two here and there, or merely changing the date on the tags. It was a risky enterprise, a flagrant act of desertion. Even more so now on this rescue mission to bring his daughter home at the very end of the war.
As they drove south, mostly in the early hours of the morning or late at night, she sometimes had to put her head down or travel in the back with the weapons.
Occasionally, she even had to get out and meet him further along the road after a checkpoint. As they got closer to Nuremberg, they stayed with people he knew from his travels. He had a network of connections, mostly women, a trail of girlfriends throughout the countryside, women whose husbands were away at the front, women who loved his stories and his optimism and, above all, his singing. He joked about his job and said it was not only defective weapons he was searching for but also defective women.
As they moved on each time, he kept trying to comfort his daughter with his humour, with all the jokes and stories he had gathered on his elliptical trips around the countryside. She wept constantly and he sang songs to her. But nothing could bring her child back.
The roads were congested. Everybody was on the move, with horses and carts, trolleys and bicycles, some with nothing but the clothes they stood in. Some of them found it hard to know where to go and sat on their suitcases with sad eyes looking into the distance. People were fleeing with terrible stories that caused even more panic along the roads. They were returning from the east in the same cattle trucks on which people were previously sent away. And there in this great drift of people looking for a place to stay and to not have to move ever again, her father left the truck parked at the edge of a small town in order to get some more fuel on the black market and came back instead with a three-year-old boy.
In the middle of the night, half asleep, she waved her hand and turned away. She didn’t want somebody else’s child. But her father got in with the toddler on his arm, setting him down on the seat between them, speaking with a softness in his voice that tranquillised her. He sang a song to keep the boy happy and to keep her happy at the same
time. He explained that he had been given the boy by an old woman who had come all the way from the East, from Danzig, and become very ill along the road. The boy had lost his parents, but now she was unable to look after him any more. He showed her a photograph of his daughter and assured her that the boy would be well taken care of now.
‘Look, he’s the image of Gregor,’ he kept repeating. Perhaps only a few months younger at the most. A beautiful, healthy boy, who would grow up just the same as her own son. He had found his mother now and she had found her missing son. In the ungodly scheme of things, this was a story of double misfortune turned into multiple good luck. A young mother who had lost her only son, matched up with a son whose mother had been taken from him. What an extraordinary reunion this was.