Authors: Ida Hattemer-Higgins
Erich flipped through
the book. He came to a very short entry over six months later.
January 22, 2002
I don’t know what to think, but I am certain that for all the travails, the heartache, the intimate acquaintanceship with Amadeus’s worst qualities, how he and the passion he arouses in me bring out my worst qualities, for all of that—I do want to try. I rejoice in him endlessly, when we’re together the smell of him drives me crazy with pure love, just like in the very beginning. I’ve always known that Amadeus will bring me pain—and maybe it’s for later years to examine why even the pain attracts me. And yet, I don’t think it’s to be condemned, my love for him, because in the end, I have won. My life is not so much a happy one as one that gets zapped full of bliss over and over. Amadeus is the zapper, whether I like it or not. I’ve gotten more from him than he has from me, although I would give him everything I have.
he days since the city’s transformation—they passed Margaret by. And although when she emerged from Number 88 the city was still burlesque and untamed, Margaret was jaded now. She was not surprised that the city appeared fleshy, and she walked past it all, half blind. Let the city’s bosoms spill out over the top of its dress—what did she care!
But while the sight did not disturb, the sounds still sometimes exhausted. When she heard the doors and windows drawing in breath all at once, making a reverse hissing sound up and down the avenues, she braced herself. The groaning and symphonic sighs sure to follow, as thunder follows lightning, rattled her still. The city meant it vindictively, she thought, knew she was its wind instrument with a reed calibrated just to its melodizing breath.
It had a message, too.
Something would breathe at her, whisper in her ear:
Magda was not the only one
, it would say at first, more on the quiet side. But then louder, with a slight sneer:
And what about the stupid ones?
For reasons Margaret could not quite understand, her mind would run with this instantly. When she heard the question she would begin to ask herself again and again: but what
the stupid ones?
And inexplicably, the question would expand in her mind in the following manner: should stupid people, she would ask herself, be called innocent? And then she always thought of Hitler’s consort, Eva Braun, as exhibit A. It was Eva Braun and her almost successful suicide attempts at the altar of her desperation for Hitler that suggested themselves to Margaret as the purest idiocy. And then the little matter of her mania, her crazy love.
Was Eva Braun, Hitler’s mincing little girlfriend, innocent or guilty?
The stupid could not be called incontrovertibly guilty, so Margaret’s ratiocinations went. In the case of Eva Braun and Hitler’s other concubines,
their womanliness held them aloof from activity, like the fatness of larvae. Eva Braun’s three suicide attempts during the years of her affair with Hitler might even be interpreted as resistance, albeit of an exclusively self-referential kind. By no means, however, could these plump larvae be called innocent either. Their coarse minds were complicit by default in any crime offered to them. Margaret had a picture in her head of Eva Braun with her broad, girlish face and swelling hips, her chamois underwear, driving her Volkwagen Beetle, that chubby little car.
The question of how to judge Eva Braun seemed terribly important.
More than once, Margaret read over the few surviving diary entries of Hitler’s mistress.
March 11, 1935
There’s just one thing I wish for: I would like to be seriously ill and to know nothing about him for at least eight days. Why doesn’t anything happen, why do I have to go through all this? If only I had never set eyes on him! I’m in despair. I’m going to go out and buy sleeping powder again and go into a half-trance state, and then I won’t think about it so much.
Why doesn’t that devil come and get me? It must be much nicer at his place than it is here.
I waited for three hours in front of the Carlton and had to watch him as he bought flowers for Ondra and invited her to dinner. (That was just my wild imagination. March 16.)
He needs me only for certain purposes, it’s not possible otherwise. When he says I’m dear to him, it only means: at that particular instant. Just like his promises, which he never keeps. Why does he torment me like this, instead of ending it at once?
February 18, 1935
Yesterday he showed up altogether unexpectedly, and we had a lovely evening. The most wonderful thing was that he’s thinking of taking me from the shop and—I’d better not get excited yet—of giving me a little house. I must not let myself think about it, it would be so marvelous. I wouldn’t have to open the door to our “honored customers” anymore, and go on being a shop girl. Dear God, let it be really true and become reality in the near future.
I am so infinitely happy that he loves me so much, and I pray that it will be like this forever. It won’t be my fault if one day he stops loving me.…
Miss Braun’s submission to fate, her longing, and the dependency of her desire! It was monstrous.
, by chance, a new person appeared. A man in a polyester golf coat it was; he walked into Margaret’s life, and it was the reality, rather than the unreality, that threw down the gauntlet this time. Berlin had yet another trick up its sleeve.
It began when Margaret was giving a tour of general sites to a group of middle-aged Irish and Australians. The group was standing at Hitler’s bunker, when a heckler accosted them.
Margaret had positioned the tourists on the parking lot that covers the eastern edge of the Führer’s final cubbyhole, at the end of the flat expanse opening onto the Wilhelmstrasse, beyond the shuddering apartment buildings. She faced them, and in the distance, behind the backs of the tourists, she caught a glimpse of a gangly, bobbing figure coming through the arcade.
On most tours, even through her trance, Margaret maintained a monitor of all people nearby not part of the tour. Passersby might always cause her trouble. Precisely because her trances were so precious, she knew how to deflect, without even stopping to think, all of the following: Italians and Americans who joined the tour surreptitiously without paying, Germans who didn’t appreciate foreign interest in the Third Reich, drunken Brits visiting Berlin on stag weekends, beggar women who weaved in and out of the group asking for money and unsettling the tourists, jeering teenagers of every nationality, and the mentally disturbed. She protected her tourists like a lioness.
And on this day, the man in the distance wasn’t moving with intention, but was rather making circles, coming slowly closer to the group, and this set Margaret’s alarm bells ringing. Finally the man was mingling with her customers, and sure enough, he began to crow at them.
He prattled. He spoke German to an Australian, one of Margaret’s customers, a man who had walked off on his own to take a few snapshots, and the other tourists saw what was happening. They gave Margaret questioning glances. Margaret stopped the tour. She fixed the
man with a glare, as public humiliation of the intruder was always the first step.
The heckler was an octogenarian. He was thick-shouldered, horse-faced, and comically tall. He wore a polyester leisure suit of the East German kind. Because he was behaving impolitely, when Margaret spoke, she too was coarse. She said, “
Was wollen Sie mit uns? Dies hier ist eine Privattour—die Leute können auch nicht mal Deutsch.
Ich war dabei,
” he crowed, with saucy pride.
” said Margaret, with disbelief.
The man’s elderly voice sounded cottony, as if the tip of his tongue were wrapped in duct tape, and his timbre warbled like a pubescent teenage boy’s.
Ja, ich gehörte dazu, damals.
Na, zu den Hitlerleuten in dem Bunker.
Margaret did not want to be drawn in, but she did notice that a quick shot of adrenaline flushed her veins. She thanked him with a caustic twinge, told him that these people didn’t understand him and he’d better save his stories for more sympathetic ears, but inside, she was excited. She turned back to her charges and said, by way of explanation for the interruption, “This man here says he was in the bunker with Hitler.” The faces turned back to the man. He was not insensible to her ironic stance, and cried out again, “
Sie glauben’s mir nicht! Aber ich bin der Prell! Ich war dabei! Das können Sie nachgucken.
Ich bin es mir sicher,
” Margaret said with conciliatory warmth.
Ja, ja! Glauben Sie es nicht? Dabei war ich aber.
Ignoring him, Margaret turned toward the group. “Perhaps we should be moving on now?” and they returned her raised eyebrows and set off to the south.
Behind her, the old man was still crowing, this time at a group of children wearing in-line skates: “
He! Kinder! Erkennt ihr mich? Ich bin der Prell! Ich war dabei!
So his name was Prell. She would look it up. Maybe he was crazy, but maybe he was not. The people on the tour tumbled after her, everyone eager to discuss.
When she got home
she took out her books on the topic of Hitler’s last days, and it was not long before she found that there had indeed
been a Prell, a certain Arthur Prell, who worked as bodyguard and radio operator in the bunker. She looked for a picture on the Internet and saw a photograph of this Arthur Prell, taken in 1942. He was very different but also very much the same: the long, horse-like face, the exceptionally broad shoulders. Her fingers shook with excitement. She swallowed. Having stumbled upon something entirely real was as good as a draught of air. She breathed deeply, and for a few moments, she felt herself a soldier called to a just war.
bird of prey traces a certain kind of line in the sky because it need not flap its wings, and every time Margaret glanced out the window, so this line came into her peripheral vision.
On Saturday afternoon, Margaret opened one of the windows and put her head out. She looked up into the sky. It was a blue sky, shocked out of all clouds, making the slow sound of an airplane. After a squinting perusal, she concluded there were no birds; her peripheral vision must have been mistaken. She drew back and began to pull the window closed. One final glance at the shuddering flesh of the buildings, however, an almost admiring glance at their vivacity, and she saw something move on the balcony of the building catty-corner.
Something flashed in her eyes. She squinted, and saw: the grey-feathered, hunchbacked woman in black gabardine, standing at attention. Not only that: the hawk-woman held a pair of binoculars, and her long eyes were trained on Margaret’s windows. Her perch was one of those ornamental balconies from the 1890s, the kind that are convex from the house, so the woman, with her hair molded in its immaculate water waves and the lenses of her voyeur’s binoculars glinting in the light, caught the full gift of the sun, and the reflection from her telescope eyes blinked into Margaret’s apartment like Morse code signals.
Quickly, Margaret closed the window and drew the curtains. It was the middle of the day, but she climbed into bed.
Under the covers, she whispered to herself violently. She muttered, tossing this way and that. She told herself in a grave voice to pull herself together. She told herself in a grave voice that she was sane, but a fool. She told herself to buck up, to strike down her gullibility. She closed her eyes.
She tried to sleep but then came that old jangling vision she had had once before—of the curving, oval staircase with its red runner. It rose from deep in her skull, bearing its blunt weapon, and pressed against her eyes. She could smell the flaxen runner, taste the chalk of
disappointment; she could touch the shadowed walls, flinch at the cold.
She slept, but when she woke up, she was not refreshed. And her heart beat again, and never had it beat faster. She thought of that feathered woman in gabardine, a feathered woman who she believed was a figment of her imagination and yet who made her stomach dive and flip.
If she could not return to the doctor right away, she decided, she would have to talk to someone else.
But Margaret didn’t know anyone. She had managed that—she really had.
She decided to ride her bicycle over to Akazienstrasse and buy a guidebook to European birds.
When she got home from the bookstore she parted the curtain a crack to see if the bird was still there. Indeed. Present and alert. When the nasty beast saw the curtain move, it flew right at her window in full bird form and landed on the wide outer sill. It cocked a topaz eye at her, Margaret the helpless zoo animal, the bird gawking.
Margaret reached for the book. She compared several pictures. The bird had long tail feathers with banded stripes and yellow eyes; this bird must be an enormous version of the
, the sparrow hawk—