By the time Jutta’s mother let her come up from the shelter, the raid was over and the fires had started to die down. But the air was still full of choking smoke, which hung so thickly overhead that the sky was black and red from the glow of the flames.
Despite the smoke which made it hard to breathe, Jutta was intensely glad to have got out of the shelter. It was simply a small cellar, and when full of people, it was so stuffy and difficult to move about that Jutta was afraid she would suffocate. At first it wouldn’t be so bad, when it was only the sirens wailing faintly in the distance. But the bombs would begin falling, and each one would send a jolt through the ground, as if someone was pounding the earth with a titanic hammer. If a bomb fell really close, walls would tremble and Jutta’s mother would grasp her shoulder so tightly that she squirmed with the pain.
This last raid, the bombs had fallen really close, closer than they had ever fallen before. One in particular must have struck the street itself. The tiny narrow windows high up under the cellar roof had flashed white and the huge mass of the building above swayed and creaked. Plaster had rained down from the ceiling and people cried out in fear. Jutta had expected the roof to cave in, and had instinctively crouched down, arms raised over her head, but after creaking and groaning a bit the house had finally settled. Only the air had been full of dust, and that now lay thick over everyone’s face and clothes in a gritty film of grey.
Jutta’s mom had tied a cloth over her hair, to keep the dust out, and she had hated it, because she loved her hair. At ten, she was tall and plain, with a snub nose and teeth which were clearly too large, but her hair was her only pride. It fell halfway to her waist in a shimmering chestnut waterfall, and she loved the feel of it swinging when she turned her head. But now in the street the soot drifted down like malignant snowflakes and settled over everything, even worse than the dust, and she was happy about it.
Behind them, the house tilted to one side, the windows and doorways oddly slanted. Jutta heard her mother and the other women talking, and they were saying how lucky it was that the building hadn’t come down on their heads, and how even a strong wind might knock it down now. Obviously, nobody could use this cellar again.
To one side, the side away from her home, the street was still on fire, and the firemen were at work trying to put out the blaze. Water sloshed in the street and hoses snaked everywhere. One of the engines had been hit, too, and looked like a broken toy, the paint scorched off the twisted metal. A body lay next to it, a cloth drawn over it and a steel helmet placed on the chest. Jutta’s mother hurried her past so she couldn’t get a look, but she glanced back, fascinated. She’d seen a lot of bodies these last months, but had never really got to accept the idea that they were dead.
Her Opa had died as one should, old and frail and in bed. Everyone had known it was coming, and had been ready long in advance, including the old man himself. These people had been alive just moments before. How could they be actually dead? How did it feel like to die like that?
Jutta imagined herself walking along and then suddenly looking down at her broken body in the street. It was a thought that had come more and more often, and she had tried to work it into the embroidery designs she was practising. She’d grown up watching her mother do embroidery, and in the last year had started trying it out herself, and had begun to be fascinated by it. But when her mother caught her doing those designs, she’d confiscate the work and grow angry, so Jutta had to do it on the sly.
The pride of Jutta’s life was actually her embroidery needles. They were in a beautiful little round box, made of cherry wood and intricately carved, which her father had got for her from France. That had been over two years ago, just before her father had gone to Russia, and he hadn’t been back since; but Jutta kept that box of embroidery needles with her all the time. She even took it to school, and kept touching it to make sure it was all right.
Jutta could feel her mother hurrying faster, to get to the corner from which they could see their home and check if it were all right. She felt the rising tension in her mother, transmitted down her hand, as it always happened at this point. And then the woman relaxed, and Jutta knew that the house had escaped again this time.
Some of the other women of the neighbourhood were standing outside Herr Hammer’s store, talking. Jutta often liked to stand outside the store’s windows, looking in at the dresses. If the sun was just right, she could stand so her reflection was placed so that she could pretend that she was wearing one of the nicest dresses on display. But in recent months the dresses had grown few, and today the windows were covered with dust and soot. And in the reddish glow she could see nothing at all.
Jutta saw old Tante Hannelore from next door among the other women outside the store. She noticed them and waved at Jutta’s mother. “Anneliese,” the fat woman called, stepping forward quickly despite her bulk. “Isn’t it just awful?”
“Awful, yes,” Jutta’s mother said. “Our shelter took a near miss. A little more and we might have been buried.”
“That’s just terrible,” Tante Hannelore said, her eyes shining and face flushed with excitement. “Do you know, the raids get closer and closer. The Amis by day and the Tommis by night, one can’t even snatch a little sleep.”
“Well...” Jutta’s mother looked around. “I was thinking of leaving for my mother’s village in Bavaria. It’s not been bombed yet. But it’s a big step and there’s money to consider. I wish Manfred were here.”
“Been a while since you saw him, isn’t it?”
“It’s been two years,” Jutta’s mother said. “Since he was sent to Russia, all we’ve had is a letter sometimes.”
“Herr Gott himself knows what’s going on there in Russia,” Tante Hannelore said. “It’s terrible, terrible there. The stories I’ve heard!”
There was an awkward pause. Jutta’s mother began to say something and checked herself.
“What do you think, dear?” Tante Hannelore squinted at Jutta. “Do you want to go to Bavaria?”
Jutta didn’t know what to say, but was saved by an explosion in the distance. Smoke rose over the rooftops like a mushroom. “A bomb with a delayed action fuse,” Tante Hannelore said knowingly. “It’s just a crime, I tell you, a crime.”
Some of the other women had drifted over and the conversation became multi-sided. Now that it was safe, Jutta’s mother let go of her shoulder and moved away a few steps. Jutta herself grew rapidly bored. She wanted to go home, but her mother had the keys. At least she had her little carved box with her embroidery needles, she thought, and reached in her pocket for it.
It was not there.
For a long moment time seemed to go still for Jutta. Her mouth went dry, and the breath seemed to stick in her throat. She frantically slapped her pockets, one after another, but the box wasn’t in any of them.
For a long moment, the world around Jutta wavered and went dim. She saw her father again, smiling, as he gave her the box, and remembered how she’d squealed and thrown her arms around his neck. Since that moment she’d never been without it.
She’d certainly had it when she’d gone down to the shelter; she remembered holding it tight when the bomb had struck the street and set the plaster raining down. So she’d dropped it inside the shelter, or on the way back. She had to go back and look for it before someone picked it up, or one of the fire trucks ran it over. She looked back the way they’d come, hoping to see it on the ground, but as far as the corner, there were only broken fragments of bricks, and water from the fire hoses.
Her mother was still busy talking, and Jutta decided that if she went back, found it and brought it back quickly, nobody need know it was lost at all. She could hardly even begin to imagine her mother’s reproaches if she had to admit she’d lost the box. She had always scolded Jutta for taking it with her everywhere, and had been predicting that she would lose it sooner or later.
Taking advantage of a moment when a couple of ambulances rushed by, horns blaring, followed by some military trucks, Jutta backed away and walked quickly down the street, her eyes scanning the ground before her boots.
Once she turned the corner, she found the street much more congested. The ambulances and trucks had stopped near the fire engines, and under guard of soldiers, a line of men was forming up with spades and pickaxes. They were shuffling down the street towards where a couple of buildings had completely collapsed. The ambulance men were preparing stretchers.
Jutta kept her head averted as she passed the men. She was afraid that if the soldiers noticed her they would order her back; but apart from that it was the men themselves. They were the thinnest men she had ever seen, and dressed in coarse cloth uniforms which hung baggily on their frames, so she knew they were from the concentration camp outside town, where all the bad men were sent.
Jutta’s mother had once showed her the concentration camp, which had high walls topped with rolls of wire and squat angular guard towers at the corners. All the bad people were sent there, Jutta’s mother had told her, speaking loudly enough to be heard by the tall young guard who stood in the nearest watchtower, looking them over. And in recent months the men from there had been brought into town more and more often, to repair the roads or dig out people from collapsed buildings after the raids. Jutta’s mom had instructed her not to look at the bad men, but they were so thin and wretched that Jutta couldn’t bring herself to look at them anyway.
She still couldn’t see the box, and had already almost reached the building in whose basement they’d sheltered during the raid. If she couldn’t find it she’d have to go back down there, alone and in the dark, and she was petrified at the prospect. But she had to find the box.
She had almost reached the house, which seemed to be tilting more perilously than ever, when the sirens sounded again, shrill and urgent. The second wave of the enemy bombers was here.
Jutta didn’t even have time to think. Over the past months, it had been drilled into her, over and over, that if there was an air raid she had to get into cover at once. Instinctively, she ran for the nearest bit of cover, the tilted building and its cellar. Stumbling over a piece of rubble, she almost fell down the stairs. A moment later, while she was still scrambling down, there was a terrific blast somewhere nearby and the building above swayed. Things splintered and crashed.
“Come up quick,” someone snapped, big fingers grabbing her sleeve and pulling, “before the building comes down on us.” Before Jutta could even turn her head, she was being dragged back up the stairs and into the street. Another explosion, very close, and the shockwave smacked her in the side and sent her staggering.
“Down here, girl.” The hand on her sleeve dragged her down behind the wrecked fire engine. The voice seemed very far away, but Jutta could feel the man’s breath and knew he was shouting into her ear. “Get down beside me and stay down. We’re...”
What he said next was drowned in a colossal rumbling crash as the building disintegrated in a cloud of rubble, collapsing in on itself. The air filled with so much dust and smoke that Jutta squeezed her eyes shut and buried her head in her arms, trying to keep her nose free. Now the explosions were coming constantly, the entire street jolting from the blasts so that she felt as though she were being bounced up and down. Then something struck her on the back of the head and she lost consciousness.
When she recovered her senses the silence was so complete that she thought she had gone deaf, and the darkness was total. Shaking her head, she tried to get up, but someone pressed her down with an arm round her shoulders.
“Don’t get up.” It was the same voice as before. “You were struck on the head with debris. Let’s be sure you’re fine. Can you see?”
“No...” Jutta began, and then realised that her eyes were squeezed shut. “Yes,” she said, blinking painfully. The concrete of the pavement before her eyes wavered and took shape. “Yes, I’m all right. Danke schön.”
“Bitte.” The man released her shoulders. “You can try to sit up now.”
“Yes...” Jutta pushed herself up on her arms and then stopped. Just next to her hand there was something. Unbelievingly, she poked at it with a finger, but it was quite real. Completely unharmed, perched on a piece of concrete, it was her needle case.
Gently, Jutta picked it up, and turned it over in her fingers. There wasn’t even a scratch on it. She had no idea how it had come there, what freak of the explosion had lifted it out of wherever it had fallen and dropped it by her hand. She slipped it back into her pocket and turned to thank her protector, a smile ready on her face.
The smile froze. Her protector was one of the men from the camps.
He was a large man, his face broad and heavy-boned, but thin, the skin stretched tight over it. His neck and arms seemed too thin for his uniform, like sticks. But his deep-set eyes were friendly and his gap-toothed smile looked genuine.
“You were lucky,” he said. “I saw you running into that building and went in after you. Never go into a damaged building like that, it could fall at any time.”
“I was looking for something,” Jutta confessed. “I never thought the bombers would come again.”
“It’s part of their strategy,” the man explained. He sounded like a teacher. “They time their second wave to catch our firemen and rescue workers at work.“
“That’s mean,” Jutta said. “It’s really mean.”
“Mean?” the man chuckled. “Well, I suppose it’s mean all right, miss. What’s your name?”
“Jutta Raubal. I live in the next street. And you are?”
“Well, I used to be called Herr Rosenstein, but nowadays I’m just number five three eight two. As for where I live, well...”
“You!” The shout was like a clap of thunder. “What are you doing there?”
Jutta’s protector seemed to physically shrink. He sat back on his heels, cringing. “Nothing, Herr Untersturmführer.”
“Nothing, huh?” The shouting man came round the edge of the wrecked fire engine, a pistol in his hand. “You bastards were ordered not to move from the street. What the hell are you...” His eyes fell on Jutta and seemed to bulge in their sockets. “What are you doing to that Aryan girl, Judenschwein?” he screamed.
“I didn’t hurt her, Herr Untersturmführer.” the man who used to be Herr Rosenstein said, still cringing.
“He didn’t hurt me,” Jutta affirmed. “He saved me from the bomb.”
The man with the pistol scarcely glanced at her. “That isn’t the point,” he yelled. “The bastard was ordered to stand in the street. He wasn’t allowed to be in cover...and he is most certainly not allowed even to touch an Aryan woman. For any reason whatsoever!”
Jutta looked at him, frightened. He was dressed in uniform, with twin lightning flashes on his right collar and a skull in the centre of the peaked cap on his head. His thin white face was disfigured with rage and his hand with the pistol was shaking. “Get up,” he screamed at Herr Rosenstein. “On your feet, Jude.”
Jutta’s protector stood, trembling. The officer looked at her, turned back to the man and suddenly hit him across the face with the barrel of the pistol. Herr Rosenstein screamed and fell back down, blood trickling down his face.
“Get up, you bastard,” the officer screamed, kicking at him. His jackboot was flecked with blood and dust. “You get out of here,” he yelled, pointing at Jutta. “Get lost. Verstehe doch!”
Jutta ran away, stumbling over the rubble. Once, at the corner, she looked back. Herr Rosenstein was still down on the ground, and the officer was standing over him. She heard a shot.
“Where have you been?” Jutta’s mother shook her by the shoulders like a rag doll. “What do you think I’ve been through, with the bombs and not knowing where you were?”
They were standing in the street outside their home, which had once again come through the bombing perfectly intact. Sirens sounded in the background from fire engines and ambulances. Half the city seemed to be on fire. Scraps of burned paper and debris floated down from the sky like charred snow.
“Please,” Jutta said. “Mutti...”
Jutta’s mother paused in mid-tirade, noticing the look on her face. “Jutta. What’s wrong?”
“I...” Jutta felt numb, her skin without sensation. “Mutti...”
“What’s wrong, baby?” Her mother wrapped her arms round her and drew her close. But then she looked over the girl’s shoulder, down the street in the direction of the Bahnhof; her eyes grew wide and mouth fell open. “Oh...my god.”
“Mutti?” Jutta asked, alarmed. “What?”
Jutta’s mother wasn’t even listening. “Manfred,” she whispered, “is it really you?”
“Just my luck,” someone said, behind Jutta. “Just came in on the train, and got caught in the air raid right away. Looks like you’re all right, though, the two of you. That’s something.”
“I can’t believe it,” Jutta’s mother said. “Jutta...Vatti’s here.”
Jutta turned. She didn’t recognise the man holding his arms out to her as her father. His face was lined and his face scarred down one cheek, but that wasn’t what made her scream.
She screamed because of the twin lightning bolts on the man’s collar, and she screamed because of the death’s head in the centre of his peaked cap. She saw again the swinging jackboot, and heard the shot. And then she turned, shook off her mother’s hand, and took off down the street.
Jutta’s mother shouted after her, calling her back, her voice coming from far away, a meaningless noise.
Frantically clutching the needle case in her pocket, as if it were an anchor to her world, Jutta kept running.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012