An excerpt from
by Hans Erich Nossack
I experienced the destruction of Hamburg as a spectator. I was spared the fate of playing a role in it. I don’t know why. I can’t even decide whether that was a privilege. I have talked to many hundreds of those who were there, men and women; what they have to tell, if they talk about it at all, is so unimaginably terrible that it is difficult to understand how they survived it. But they were given their role and their cue and had to act accordingly; and what they are able to report, heartwrenching though it may be in itself, is always just the part they were prompted to play. After all, most of them, as they ran out of their burning houses, didn’t know that the whole city was burning. They thought it was just their street or, at most, their district, and perhaps that was what saved them.
For me the city went to ruin as a whole, and my danger consisted in being overpowered by seeing and knowing the entirety of its fate.
I feel that I have been given a mandate to render an account. Let no one ask me why I presume to speak of a mandate: I cannot answer that. I feel that my mouth would remain closed forever if I did not take care of this first. Also, I feel an urgency to set it down right away, even though only three months have passed. For reason will never be capable of comprehending as a reality or preserving in memory what happened there. I am afraid that, if I do not bear witness now, it will gradually fade like an evil dream.
On July 21, 1943, a Wednesday, I took the bus early in the morning to Horst near Maschen, a village in the heath with weekend colonies about fifteen kilometers due south of the outskirts of Hamburg. Misi had gone there the day before and had called me in the evening to tell me that she had finally succeeded in renting a small cabin for fourteen days; after how many weeks of fruitless trying and begging! And even now only because she had offered a quarter of a pound of coffee in return for the place. It was the first time in five years that I had left Hamburg for a vacation. There is no explanation for the fact that I didn’t say no this time as well; for everything spoke against this vacation—if nothing else, my morbid disinclination to leave the city and my room and squander precious time, as I put it, before I had achieved something tangible.
Misi picked me up at the bus stop. She had on a red linen dress and a white head scarf. She was glad and also surprised that I had come. On the way to the cabin she tried quickly to describe everything to me so that I wouldn’t be disappointed. We still had ten more minutes to walk. Since we had to bring our own food, my luggage was quite heavy, and I complained more than was necessary. We have often thought back on that; if we had been able to look just four days ahead I would have gladly carried three times the weight without grumbling. We walked this stretch, a wide and beautiful path through the heath, scored by many sandy wheel tracks carrying heavy loads back and forth several times a day for two months. Once even seven hundredweights of briquettes on a small handcart.
The cabin lay to the right of the path on the ridge of a hill, hidden away among birches, evergreen bushes, and a completely neglected vegetable garden. Only the pointed red roof jutted out above. To the north there was an open view onto a treeless moorland hollow, which in turn was gently closed off by another wave of hills. Behind that the landscape descended gradually toward the Elbe and Hamburg. On a clear day you could see the towers of the city.
The owner, a mason, had built the brick cabin with his own hands. You went in through a small glass porch, not without difficulty, as it was crammed full with various tools, and entered the kitchen from there. Next came a somewhat larger living room and, adjoining it, a tiny cell that seemed to have been built at a later date, just large enough for a bed. That was to be my bedroom. There was a stairway leading from the kitchen to the attic, and there stood a second bed for Misi. The rooms seemed even smaller than they actually were because they had been filled with completely unsuitable petit bourgeois furniture. Under the stairway was a storage bin inhabited by a small brown field mouse. Sometimes when we sat eating at the table, it would stick its little head through a crack and test the terrain with knowing eyes. But most important: in the kitchen was a trap door with an iron ring for a handle. If you lifted it, you could squeeze your way down into the cellar by means of a steep flight of stairs. It was cold there; it smelled of damp earth. The trap door and the cellar immediately reminded us of Barlach’s play The Dead Day.
There was no light in the house; we had brought along what was left of a thick votive candle. Water had to be fetched from the neighbor’s well, which was very far away. We gathered wood and pinecones in the forest every day. The stove drew very poorly and swallowed a great deal of fuel; it took an hour to get a pot of water to boil. All these inconveniences didn’t disturb us then, it was all part of taking a vacation. Every time I made a fire I would run outside to watch with great pleasure the smoke billowing from my own chimney.
The first two days we had a headache, as usual, from the heath air. Then we got used to it. Except for when we went shopping in the village we hardly saw anyone. The nearest dwelling—a completely dilapidated cottage—wasn’t very far off, however. The people who lived there had a bad reputation; the man was said to have spent time in jail for violating his daughter. All the children had been found guilty of prostitution and theft and had been sent to reform schools. After the catastrophe one of the daughters was allowed to go home for several days. You could hear her singing in the heath whenever she sensed a man was near. In the evening, the mother left the house to cut grass. On her way, she would sometimes stop at our garden gate for a moment. With the shrill voice of a madwoman she would then shout something in our direction that we could only half understand. Once she gave us a cucumber, we didn’t know why. Hitched to a wooden cart, her big black dog waited and watched us closely. At night he often woke us with his barking. While the woman cut grass, she let her two young goats run free; one of them kept wandering off into our garden, where it would cry like a child. Once a buck made a frightening appearance. It was huge, like a prehistoric beast.
When our primitive household wasn’t taking up our attention, we sat outside and read the adventure novels we had found in the cabin. We had not brought any books; that too was part of taking a vacation. We were dressed in our oldest clothes. Above all, we had left our good shoes at home, because the heather would ruin them. We greatly regretted this precaution later on.
We watched titmice hanging on the stems of withered poppies and opening their capsules. We contested another bird’s claim to the raspberries and the last cherries, which it carried from the tree to the stone gatepost to pick out the seeds there; the post was all bloody from the juice. Hawks stood in the sky, and jays scolded in the squat, earthbound oaks. In the evening a cow’s cries reached us from a distant pasture, accusing and helpless.
It was the first summer weather of the year, but with it came that heat that would contribute to the ruin of Hamburg, although later it was also of some help to the homeless refugees. The heath was just beginning to bloom. Little bunches of bellflowers stood by the sides of the roads. On that hollowed slope to the north of us, some plant whose name we did not know had taken seed among the heather. It blooms in rose-colored umbels and afterward bears a mane of white cotton; since it grows almost a meter high, its blossoms floated like a rosy mist above the hollow. All that was heavy lay hidden behind a lovely unreality.
We love the heath, somehow we belong there, perhaps we were born there ages ago. Others feel sick there and become melancholy. They cannot live without time; for the heath is without time. They don’t want to know that we were born of a fairy tale and will become a fairy tale again.
We began to forget the war.—
I have described this idyll on the other side of the abyss so precisely because perhaps a way can be found leading back from there to the past we have lost.
Sometime late Saturday night or Sunday morning Misi woke me up. She was calling from upstairs: “Don’t you hear it? Wouldn’t you rather get up?” I had slept through the alarm; in the heath, it is only when the direction of the wind is favorable that you hear the sirens caterwauling in the far-off villages. Besides, over the years we had become used to staying in bed when the alarms sounded and not getting up until increased antiaircraft fire suggested that an actual attack was at hand; a habit that cost many people their lives.
I was about to give an irritated reply and turn over on my side when I heard it. I jumped out of bed and ran barefoot out of the house, into this sound that hovered like an oppressive weight between the clear constellations and the dark earth, not here and not there but everywhere in space; there was no escaping it.
In the northwest the hills on either side of the Elbe stood silhouetted against the narrow twilight of the departed day. The landscape cowered, holding its breath. Not far away stood a searchlight; commands were being shouted that immediately lost all connection with the earth and scattered in the void. Nervously the searchlight scanned the sky; sometimes it met with other shafts that were also swinging to and fro in wide arcs, so that for a moment they formed geometrical figures and tentlike structures, then quickly, as if startled, flew apart. It was as if this sound between heaven and earth were sucking up their light and driving them senseless. But the stars shone as they do in peacetime, straight through the invisible calamity.
One didn’t dare to inhale for fear of breathing it in. It was the sound of eighteen hundred airplanes approaching Hamburg from the south at an unimaginable height. We had already experienced two hundred or even more air raids, among them some very heavy ones, but this was something completely new. And yet there was an immediate recognition: this was what everyone had been waiting for, what had hung for months like a shadow over everything we did, making us weary. It was the end. This sound was to last an hour and a half, and then again on three nights of the following week. It hung steadily in the air, and remained steady even when the much louder din of the defense intensified to a drumfire. Only at moments when individual squadrons descended for a strafing did it swell and graze the earth with its wings. And yet this terrible noise was so permeable that every other sound could be heard as well: not just the reports of the antiaircraft guns, the bursting of grenades, the howling roar of bombs, the singing of shrapnel, no, even a very soft rustling, no louder than that of a withered leaf dropping from branch to branch, and for which there was no explanation in the darkness.
The sound immediately drove me back into the house. It is possible that Misi called out to me from above, and that I answered something or other—I no longer remember. It wouldn’t have been more than a few words; for this sound made a lie of all talk, it disarmed every word and pressed it to the ground. It was half an hour after midnight. The windows of the cabin couldn’t be shaded; we got dressed in the dark and kept bumping into furniture. Then Misi came downstairs with the two suitcases. I lifted the trapdoor, squeezed through the opening and climbed down the steps until only my head was above ground level. Misi handed me the two suitcases and who knows what else, and I carried everything down. In the cellar I bumped into a shelf; a glass bowl that didn’t belong to us fell down and broke. The sound was already in the cellar too, yes, it may have been even louder there, the walls vibrated from it; the ground carries sounds far in the heath. We lit the votive candle, which we had placed inside a small flowerpot. I believe Misi extinguished it soon, to preserve it. I ignored the plea in her question: Wouldn’t you rather stay down here too? I left her sitting there, alone on a little footstool, wrapped in blankets. I climbed back up and closed the trapdoor above her. Or maybe Misi closed it herself, thinking she would be safer that way. But safe from what? And how separate we became by setting those thin boards between us! All this is senseless, and thinking about it fills one with infinite pity for all creatures, and one falls silent because the words threaten to become sobs. Even today we are still unable to listen to music, we have to stand up and go away. When I say music I mean Bach’s Air or something like that. There is something consoling in it, but it is precisely this consolation that makes us feel naked and helpless, at the mercy of a force that wants to destroy us. During those nights I walked back and forth on the narrow strip between the vegetable garden and the wire fence that enclosed the plot; there the view was unobstructed toward the north. Sometimes I stumbled over a molehill; once I fell down because my foot had got caught in the raspberry bushes.
There wasn’t much for the eye to see, and it was always the same. It’s not the most important thing, either. Numerous flares hung in the air above Hamburg; they were popularly known as Christmas trees. Sometimes ten, sometimes just two or one, and if at some point there were none at all, you would begin to draw hope that perhaps it was over—until new ones were dropped. Many disintegrated as they sank, and it looked as if glowing drops of metal were dripping from the sky onto the cities. In the beginning, you could follow these flares until they extinguished themselves on the ground; later they vanished in a cloud of smoke that was lit red from below by the burning city. The cloud of smoke grew from minute to minute and gradually crept eastward. I paid no attention, as I had during previous raids, to the direction of the searchlights and the focal points of the antiaircraft fire. The tracers of small-caliber antiaircraft guns were just barely visible, and the heavy artillery shells were exploding everywhere. Only when the fire was right above me and the whistling of shrapnel and the smacking sound of its impact came close did I step under the roof of the porch. A few airplanes caught fire and fell like meteors into the dark. But this didn’t arouse a hunter’s interest the way it used to. Where they crashed, the landscape lit up for minutes. Once the silhouette of a distant windmill stood out against one such white incandescence. There was no feeling of cruel satisfaction at the defeat of an enemy. I remember that on one such occasion some women on the roof of a neighbor’s house clapped their hands, and how at the time I angrily thought of the words with which Odysseus forbade the old nurse to rejoice over the death of the Suitors:
Old woman, rejoice in silence; restrain yourself, and do not make any noise about it; it is an unholy thing to vaunt over dead men.
But now was no longer the time for such petty distinctions as that between friend and foe. And suddenly everything was submerged in the milky light of the netherworld. A searchlight behind me was sweeping the earth at ground level. Frightened, I turned around, and then I saw that even nature had risen up in hatred against herself. Two trunkless pines had broken through the peaceful trance of their existence and turned into black wolves avidly leaping after the bloody sickle of the moon, which was rising before them. Their eyes gleamed white and foam dripped from their snarling mouths.
I, who was walking back and forth somewhere in the void, physically, without the strength of a single thought, was I not acquainted with this hatred? Had I not kept watch over it for decades and labored to forestall its eventual explosion? Did I not know that it would burst forth some day, and did I not also yearn for this day, because it would finally relieve me of the watchman’s duty? Yes, I have always known, as I know now, that the fate of the city would be my own fate. And if indeed I invoked the fate of the city in order to force my own fate to a decision, then I must stand and confess my part in the city’s destruction.
We all entertained the idea of an apocalypse. The events of our time suggested it. Didn’t that already mean abandoning the past? And what boastfulness was still involved, so much sophisticated chatter; for if we had seriously asked ourselves what it was that we hoped to save for those who would survive tomorrow’s apocalypse, where was there anything that we would have deemed so indispensable that we would have given our last breath to preserve it? What was there that we believed in so strongly that the powers of destruction would shy away from touching this faith, so as not to bestow eternal life on what they were destroying? What was there among all the things that we used and that burdened us that was still ours? Today, I dare to cast doubt on the sincerity of those who warned us of the impending disaster and called for preparation. Is it not possible that they wished for a catastrophe so that they could force others to their knees, while they themselves felt at home in chaos? And were they not driven by the desire to test themselves, but at the cost of our familiar existence?
During all the earlier raids I had an unequivocal wish: let it get really bad! So unequivocal that I almost want to say, I shouted it out to the heavens. It was not courage that prevented me from ever going to the cellar but instead kept me spellbound on the balcony of my apartment. It was curiosity. Each time, I wondered: will my wish be fulfilled? I am not saying this to give myself airs by making strange pronouncements. I believe I am obligated to express something that I suspect was felt by countless men, except that they were not conscious of it and wouldn’t admit it if they were. Some will come and say: That’s how it always is, and this is what it means to be male: we have to destroy in order to create. But what if the earth were to say: I gave birth to you because I longed to be more than earth. Where now is your deed?—Then we will no longer have the power to wish like that Indian, the last of his tribe, who sat by the shore of the sea and cried, What shall I do now? Shall I become Orion?
Since we no longer believe in ourselves, what are we still? Hollowed out by a night of depravity. So let’s not speak of upright gait and creating!
But now the hatred was outside me, and I was free of it. I staggered on the shore of the ruined world, and a groan went through me: Oh God? Oh God!—so loud that Misi heard it despite the raging destruction and called out to me from under the earth. And then I ran to her for a moment and said: This is unbearable. We leaned against each other, just lightly, shy of letting our impotence become any more apparent. Like two horses harnessed together, when one of them lays its head on the neck of its companion and then both shake off that brief tenderness with seeming annoyance. I ran out again and left Misi alone. Wouldn’t it have been better if I had sat next to her in the dark cellar, and by sharing a little body warmth we would have dreamed up a refuge from the storm? Or I would have told her a fairy tale to draw a rainbow across the abyss where the road through the hated past came to an end, a fairy tale that begins like this: Tomorrow, when it’s all over…Whatever was done or not done by human beings during those nights was done or not done out of impotence.