Authors: Cay Rademacher
Translated from the German by Peter Millar
Our main character's name is Frank Stave. The surname is typical for the Schleswig-Holstein area of Germany between Hamburg and the Danish border, and is pronounced âStah-ve'.
As a major port, Hamburg was bombed on many occasions during the Second World War but the greatest attacks, signally known as Operation Gomorrah, took place towards the end of July 1943 with a series of massive air raids by the RAF and, to a lesser extent, USAF, with heavy bombs including air mines which created an immense firestorm with temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees Celsius.
Most of the city was destroyed. It is impossible to know for certain how many victims there were, but estimates of the dead range from 34,000 to 42,000 and the injured from 37,000 to 125,000
Monday, 20 January 1947
till half asleep, Chief Inspector Frank Stave reached an arm out across the bed towards his wife, then remembered that she had burned to death in a fire storm three and a half years ago. He balled his hand into a fist, hurled back the blanket and let the ice-cold air banish the last shades of his nightmare.
A grey dawn light filtered through the threadbare damask curtains he had salvaged from the rubble of the house next door. For the last five weeks he had secured them to the window frames every evening with a few drawing pins he got hold of on the black market. The windowpanes were as thin as newspaper and even encrusted with ice on the inside. Stave was afraid that one of these days the glass would crack under the weight of the ice. Even the thought was absurd: these windows had been shaken by the shock waves from countless exploding bombs without shattering.
The blanket was frozen against the wall in places. In the dim early morning light the layer of hoar frost on the walls was so thick they looked as if they were covered with a layer of calloused skin. All that remained underneath was a few strips of wallpaper that might have been fashionable in 1930, stained plaster and in places just the bare wall itself: black and red brickwork and pale grey mortar.
Slowly, Stave made his way to the tiny kitchen, its icy floor tiles freezing the soles of his feet despite two pairs of old socks. With stiff fingers he groped around in the little counter-top wood-burner until at last he got a fire glowing in its tiny barrel-shaped belly. There was a stench of burning furniture polish because the wood he had been feeding into it
used to be a dark chest of drawers from the bedroom of the house next door which was hit by a bomb back in the summer of 1943.
bomb, Stave thought to himself. The bomb that took his wife from him.
While he waited for the block of ice in the old Wehrmacht kettle on top of the stove to melt and at the same time bring a little warmth into the apartment, he pulled off the old wool pullover, the police tracksuit, two vests and the socks in which he had slept. Carefully, he set them down on the rickety chair next to his bed. With an allowance of just 1.95 kilowatts of electricity a month – precious energy reserved for the hotplate and his evening meal – he didn’t switch on the light; he had taken care, as always, to lay out his clothes in the same order, so that he could put them on in the gloom.
Stave splashed glacial water on his face and body, the drops burning his skin, causing him to shiver involuntarily. Then he put on his shirt, suit, overcoat and shoes. He shaved slowly, carefully, in the half-light; he had no way of making lather and his razor blade was dull. New ones wouldn’t be available on the ration coupons for a few weeks yet, if at all. He let the rest of the water continue to warm up on the stove.
Stave would have liked freshly ground coffee, like he used to drink before the war. But all he had was
coffee, a powder that produced a pale, grey brew when he poured the lukewarm water on it. He stirred in a spoonful of ground acorn roasted a few days previously, so that it at least had a bitter taste. Add a couple of slices of dry crumbling bread. Breakfast.
Stave had traded in his last real coffee at the railway station yesterday, in exchange for a few crumbs of worthless information. He is a chief inspector of police, a rank introduced by the British occupation forces, and one that to Stave, who grew up with terms such as ‘Criminal Inspector’ or ‘Master of the Watch’, still sounds odd.
Last Saturday he arrested two murderers. Refugees from East Prussia, who’d got involved with the black market and had strangled a woman who owed them something and thrown her body into a
canal, weighted down with lump of concrete from one of the ruins. They’d gone to the trouble of hacking a hole in the half-metre thick ice to dispose of their victim. It was their bad luck that they had no knowledge of the local tides, and when the water went out their victim lay there for all to see, lying in the sludge beneath the ice, as though under a magnifying glass.
Stave quickly identified the victim, found out who she had last been seen with, and arrested the killers within 24 hours of her death.
Then, as he did every weekend when he was not overwhelmed with work, he went down to the main railway station and mingled with the endless streams of people on the platforms and asked around amongst all the residents of Hamburg who had been on foraging trips in the surrounding countryside and all the soldiers still retiring home: asked them in a hesitant, whispering voice, if they might have heard anything of a certain Karl Stave.
Karl, the boy who in 1945, at the age of 17, had signed up as a schoolboy volunteer in a unit bound for the Eastern Front, which by then already ran through the suburbs of Berlin. Karl, who had lost his mother, despised his father as ‘soft’ and ‘un-German’. Karl, who since the battle for the capital of the Reich had been missing, become a phantom in the no-man’s-land between life and death, maybe fallen in battle, maybe taken by the Red Army as a prisoner-of-war, maybe on the run somewhere and using a false name. But if that had been the case, would he not, despite all their disagreements, have got in touch with his father?
Stave wandered around, spoke to emaciated figures in greatcoats far too big for them, men with the ‘Russia face’. He showed them a grimy photo of his boy and was rewarded only by shaking heads, tired shrugs. Then, finally, someone who claimed to know something. Stave gave him the last of his coffee, and was told that there was a Karl Stave in Vorkuta, in a prisoner-of-war camp, or at least somebody who might once have looked like the boy in the photograph and whose name was Karl, maybe, and who was still behind bars there, maybe. Or maybe not.
Suddenly three knocks on the door jolted him out of his thoughts; to save a few milliwatts of power the chief inspector had pulled the fuse from the electric doorbell, For a split second he had the absurd hope it might be Karl, knocking on his door at this hour of the morning. Then Stave pulled himself together: don’t start imagining things, he told himself.
Stave was in his early forties, lean, with grey-blue eyes, short blond hair with just the first hints of grey. He hurried over to the door. His left leg hurt, like it always did in winter. His ankle had been stiff ever since he was injured on
night, back in 1943. Stave had a slight limp as a result, but was in denial of his handicap to the extent that he forced himself to jog, to do stretching exercises and even – at least when the Schulzes downstairs were not at home – rope-skipping.
In the doorway stood a uniformed policeman, wearing the high cylindrical Shako helmet. That was all Stave could make out at first. The stairwell had been dark, ever since somebody stole all the light bulbs. The policeman must have had to feel his way up the four flights of stairs.
‘Good morning, Chief Inspector,’ he said. His voice sounded young, trembling with nervous excitement. ‘We’ve found a body. You need to come right away.’
‘Fine,’ Stave answered, mechanically, before it hit him that the word was hardly appropriate in the circumstances.
Had he no feelings left? In the last years of the war he had seen far too many dead bodies – including that of his own wife – for news of a murdered human being to shock him. Did he feel excitement? Yes, the excitement of a hunter spotting a wild animal’s tracks.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked the young policeman, pulling on his heavy wool overcoat and reaching for his hat.
‘Ruge, Police Constable Heinrich Ruge.’
Stave glanced at his blue uniform, the metal service badge with his number on the left side of his chest. Another innovation by the British who hated all German policemen: a four-figure number worn over the heart, a glittering target for any criminal with a gun.
The overcoat was much too big for this policeman, who was skinny and young, scarcely older than Stave’s son.
When the British occupation force had taken over in May 1945, they had sacked hundreds of policemen – anyone who had been in the Gestapo, anyone who’d been in a position of power, anyone who’d been politically active. People like Stave, who under the old regime had been considered ‘on the left’ and been relegated to low-ranking unimportant jobs, were kept on. New people were brought in, boys like this Ruge, too young to know anything about life, let alone anything about police work. They were given eight weeks’ training, a uniform and then sent out on to the street. These rookies had to learn on the job what it meant to be a policeman. They included poseurs, who were no sooner in uniform than they were snapping orders at their fellow citizens and striding through the ruins like members of the Prussian nobility. Shady characters too, the sort you’d have seen in police stations back in the days of the Kaiser and the Weimar Republic, except that then they were in the cells, not behind a desk.
‘Cigarette?’ Stave offered.
Ruge hesitated a second, then reached out and took the Lucky Strike. Smart enough not to ask where the chief inspector got an American cigarette.
‘You’ll have to light it yourself,’ Stave added, apologetically. ‘I’ve hardly any matches left.’
Ruge put the cigarette in his uniform pocket. Stave wondered if the lad would smoke it later or keep it to exchange for something else. What? He pulled himself together: he was starting to suspect the motives of everyone he met.
Ready at last, he turned towards the door, then reached for his shoulder holster. The boy in uniform stared and watched as Stave fastened the leather belt around him, with the FN 22, 7.65mm calibre pistol in it. Uniformed police carried 40cm truncheons on their belts, no firearms. The British had confiscated them all, even air rifles from funfairs. Only a select few in the serious crime department were allowed to carry guns.
Ruge seemed to be getting more nervous still. Maybe he had just realised that this was serious. Or maybe he’d just like a gun himself. Stave dismissed the thought.
‘Let’s go,’ he said, feeling his way out into the dark stairwell. ‘Watch out for the steps. I don’t want you falling down them and leaving me with another corpse to deal with.’
The two men plodded downstairs. At one point Stave heard the young policeman curse quietly, but couldn’t be sure if he had missed a step or stubbed his toe on something. Stave knew every creaking step and could make his way down even in total darkness by the feel of the banisters.
They emerged from the building. Stave’s room was at the front, on the right on the top floor of the four-storey rental block in Ahrensburger Strasse: an art nouveau building, the walls painted white and pale lilac, although that was hardly obvious under the layers of dirt and grime; an ornamented façade, tall, white windows, each apartment with a balcony, a curved stone balustrade with wrought iron. Not a bad building at all. The next but one was similar, only with brighter paint. The one that used to be in-between was similar too, but all that remained was a couple of walls and heaps of bricks and rubble, charred beams, a stove pipe so tightly wedged into the ruins that no looter had managed to steal it yet.
That used to be Stave’s house. He lived there, at number 91, for ten years until that night, the night the bombs fell and took the houses down with them: one here, one there. Leaving holes in rows of houses along the city’s streets like missing teeth in a neglected mouth.
Why number 91, but not number 93 or number 89? There was no point in asking the question. And yet, every time he left the building where he now lived, Stave thought about it. Just as he thought back to pulling his wife’s body out from under the rubble, or rather pulling out what remained of her body. A while later, somebody – he couldn’t remember who now, he could hardly remember much at all from those weeks in the summer of 1943 – had offered him the flat in
number 93. What had happened to the people who had previously lived there? Stave had forced himself not to ask that question either.
‘Chief Inspector. Sir?’
Ruge’s voice seemed to come from miles away. Then a surprise: there was a police car standing in front of him, one of just five functioning vehicles at the disposal of the Hamburg Police Department.
‘Now that’s what I call luxury,’ he mumbled.
Ruge nodded. ‘We need to hurry up before anyone gets wind of what’s up.’ He sounded particularly proud of himself, Stave thought.
Then he threw open the door of the 1939 Mercedes Benz. Ruge had made no move to open it for him. Instead he went round the box-like vehicle and climbed into the driver’s seat.
He put his foot down, driving in a zigzag. Before the war Ahrensburger Strasse had been dead straight with four lanes, almost too wide, the houses on either side not quite big enough for such a grand boulevard. But now there were ruins in the road, house façades lying like dead soldiers who’d fallen on their faces, chimneys, indefinable heaps of rubble, bomb craters, potholes, tank tracks, two or three wrecked cars.
Ruge swerved round the obstacles, too fast for Stave’s liking. But the boy was excited. The street lights, those that were still standing, no longer worked. The sky hung low above them; an icy north wind blowing down Ahrensburger Strasse. There had to be a crack in the old Daimler’s rear windscreen, letting Siberian air into the car. Stave pulled his collar up, shivering. When was the last time he’d felt warm?
The headlights swept over the brown rubble. Despite the early hour and a temperature of minus 20°C, a few people were already wandering like zombies along either side of the street: gaunt men in dyed Wehrmacht greatcoats, skeletal figures with one leg wrapped in rags, women with wool scarves wrapped around their heads, covering their faces, laden down with baskets and tin cans. More women than men, many more.
Stave wondered where they were all going so early. The shops
were only open between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. in order to save electricity for lighting, and that’s if they had anything to offer on the rations.
There were still nearly one and a half million people in Hamburg. Hundreds of thousands had died in the fighting or in the bombings; many more were evacuated to the countryside. But their place had been taken by refugees, and DPs, Displaced Persons, liberated concentration-camp inmates and prisoners-of-war, most of them Russians, Poles, Jews who either couldn’t go back home or didn’t want to. Officially they lived in the camps the British provided for them, but many of them preferred to struggle along in the devastated metropolis on the banks of the Elbe.