An Excerpt from Ernst Haffner’s Blood Brothers
Eight Blood Brothers — tiny individual links of an exhausted human chain stretching across the factory yard and winding up two flights of stairs — stand and wait among hundreds of others to be admitted from the awful damp cold into the warm waiting rooms. Just three or four minutes to go now. Then, on the dot of eight, the heavy iron door on the second floor will be unlocked. The local welfare bureaucracy for Berlin-Mitte on Chausseestrasse jerks into life; the coiled line jerks into life. Limbs advance, feet shuffle, hands clutch the innumerable necessary papers. (In the furtherance of good order, the office has put out printed instructions that list them in endless sequence, and which twenty-four offices are responsible for issuing them.)
The queue has already reached the cash-office waiting room. There, with military precision, it splits into two smaller queues. One waits patiently to surrender its stamped cards to the hoarse-voiced office boy Paule, prior to receipt of payment. The second queue winds in front of the information counter in order to answer questions of who and where and where from, and then, with luck, to be issued with cardboard numbers. Thereafter, the individual parts will go into two other rooms to stand outside the doors of officialdom and wait with the patience of saints for their number to be called. The saints will have to be patient for five or six hours or more. The eight gang members join neither of the two queues but make straight for United Artists. Maybe they’ll be in time for a bench.
The “United Artists’” waiting room, where applications for urgent assistance are filled in. The initials “UA” have been repurposed by cynical Berlin humor as “United Artists.” Half an hour after opening time, the large hall is already jampacked. The few benches are fully occupied. Individuals who couldn’t find a seat fill the aisles or lean against the two long walls, which have acquired a nasty black stain at shoulder height from so many thousands of slumped human backs. The indescribably dreary light of the day outside mingles with the glow of the weak electric bulbs to form a chiaroscuro, in which these poor souls look even more wretched, even more starved. On the other side of the walls are bright clean offices. Though these offices are fitted with doors, in the conventional manner, beside each door there is also a four-sided hole large enough for the head of an official on a lower pay scale. To spare their vocal cords and to avoid excessive contact with the needy public, the officials don’t themselves call out the numbers through the doors. No, a flap is thrust open, a human head appears nicely framed and yells out the number. And with that the flap clacks shut. The number — in the office, it is translated back into “Meyer, Gustav” or “Abrameit, Frieda” — trots into the office through the door beside the hole. Each time a number is called, all the waiting heads jerk up. It can happen that two numbers are called from opposite walls simultaneously. Then all the heads jerk up and back in time.
The eight boys were able to capture a whole bench and, serenely oblivious to the numbers, they drop off to sleep. They’ve spent the whole endless winter’s night on the street. As so many times before: homeless. Always trudging on, always on the go. No chance of any shut-eye in this weather.
Day-old remnants of snow, the occasional thin shower of sleet, everything nicely shaken up by a wind that makes the boys’ teeth chatter with cold. Eight boys, aged sixteen to nineteen. A few are veterans of borstals. Two have parents somewhere in Germany. The odd one perhaps still has a father or mother someplace. Their birth and early infancy coincided with the war and the years after. From the moment
they undertook their first uncertain steps, they were on their own. Father was at the Front or already listed missing. Mother was turning grenades, or coughing her lungs out a few grams at a time in explosives factories. The kids with their turnip bellies — not even potato bellies — were always out for something to eat in courtyards and streets. As they grew older, gangs of them went out stealing. Stealing to fill their bellies. Malignant little beasts.
Ludwig from Dortmund has jerked awake at the sound of a number being called. Now he’s sitting there, feet out, fists in his pockets, empty cigarette holder in the corner of his mouth. The lantern-jawed face with the alert brown eyes looks with interest in the direction of the entrance. His friends are all asleep, slumped forward, collapsed, or leaning inertly against their neighbors. Jonny, their leader, their boss, has summoned them for nine o’clock. As so often before, he has promised to get hold of money from somewhere. He hasn’t said how. At ten last night he said goodbye — at this point, Ludwig sees Jonny walking into the room, and he waves animatedly. “Here, Jonny, over here!” Jonny is a young man of twenty-one. His physiognomy, with square chin and prominent cheekbones, looks a little brutal, and testifies to his willpower. He speaks with fluency and decisiveness, almost without dialect, and this proves that he stands above the rest of the gang in terms of education and intellect. Superior strength is taken for granted; he wouldn’t be their boss otherwise. “Hey, Ludwig!” He hands him a big box of cigarettes. Ludwig helps himself and chews on the smoke with delight. The others are still sleeping. Ludwig takes a long drag and blows smoke in their faces. They gulp, splutter, wake up.
Nothing could have woken them so effectively. Cigarettes? Jonny? Here! Quickly all help themselves. And now they know too that Jonny’s in the money, and that they’re going to get something to eat. So what are they waiting for? As ever, they move in three troops. Nine boys in a gaggle attract too much unfavorable attention. They turn off Chaussee- into Invalidenstrasse. That’s where they buy breakfast. Forty-five rolls in three mighty bags, and two entire liver sausages with onion. That has to do for the nine of them.
Rosenthaler Platz, Mulackstrasse, then down Rückerstrasse. Into the bar used by all the gangs around the Alexanderplatz, the Rückerklause. You can stand outside and watch the cooks frying batches of potato pancakes. The greasy scraps of smoke drift into the furthest recesses of the unlit, sinister, and unsavory bar. In spite of the early hour, it’s already full. The Klause is more than just a bar. It’s a kind of home from home for those who don’t have a home. Noisy loudspeaker music, noisy customers. The unappetizing buffet, the beer-sodden tables, the smoke-blackened graffitied walls — all this doesn’t bother anyone. The gang occupy the space to the right of the door. The waiter brings them some broth — well, at least it’s hot. Then they set about scoffing their rolls and liver sausage. There’s not much conversation. Only dark, barbarous sounds: the grunts with which the stomach expresses its satisfaction. The boys are transformed. They sink their teeth into the sausage ends, they work their jaws. They look at each other, their expressions seeming to say: Don’t it feel good to be eating, and knowing there’s more to come . . . And other expressions, of gratitude and pride, are for Jonny, who once more has saved their bacon.
In one of the booths at the back, a young gang member is sitting on the lap of a passed-out customer. Two of his mates are walking up and down in front of the niche, gesturing to their chum: “Go on, mate!” Pull the wallet out of his pocket, and give it to us . . .
Standing at the bar between two gang bosses is a girl, a child of fifteen or sixteen. Cheekily she’s put on the leather jacket of one of the young men, who doesn’t need it, and his peaked cap, and is now tossing back one schnapps after another with the two of them. The sickly pale face with its blue veins at the temples convulses with disgust, but then the dirty little paw reaches for the glass to drink to one of the leather jackets. The girl’s mouth opens: almost no teeth, just isolated blackened stumps. She’s not even sixteen . . . Behind the bar stands the watchful landlord. In a good blue suit and spic-and-span collar, the only one in the whole bar. Music blares out without a break. Incessant comings and goings. Everyone here is either young or underage. Many turn up with rucksacks and parcels. They go directly to the bathroom, the hideously dirty toilets. Brief exchange, unpacking, packing, money changes hands. A schnapps at the bar. Gone. Police raids are not infrequent. The girl, legless by now, goes reeling from table to table, offering herself. Oh, Friedel, showing off again, they say, otherwise unmoved by the sorry spectacle of a drunken child offering her scrawny charms. Rückerklause, a kind of home from home for those who don’t have a home. The forever-hungry boys have demolished the rolls and the liver sausage, and two potato pancakes each. They lean back contentedly, draw on their ciggies, sip their beer, and hum along to the tunes on the loudspeaker. “. . . Auf die Dauer, lieber Schatz, ist mein Herz kein Ankerplatz . . .” They’re full, the bar feels warm. They’re starting to feel drowsy. Their heads sink. Only Jonny is sitting up, smoking, watchful. He pays the tab for them all. Then he counts up what he’s got left. All of eight marks. Where will they go tonight? The very cheapest hostel takes fifty pfennigs for the use of a bug-ridden mattress. That comes to four-fifty, which would mean almost nothing left for tomorrow. Jonny racks his brains for a cheaper option. Lets them sleep. He leaves word with the waiter to tell them to meet him at Schmidt’s at eight.