AWINTER MORNING IN 1934. Imagine frost on the windowpanes of the schoolhouse in this village by the Rhein, milk blossoms of frost. Imagine the chill on the necks of the boys in Fräulein Jansen’s classroom. Feel their dread because today is the first anniversary of the fire that destroyed the parliament building in Berlin, a fire that has scorched their dreams in a whoosh of yellow and red, jagged and fast, so fast it’s like a whip, like a hot wind, clutching at timbers till they cave in.
“What if the communists burn our school?” the boys ask their young teacher.
“Will they attack our village?”
“Oh no.” She tries to calm them. “The fire happened far away from here. Hundreds of kilometers.”
But the boys have heard about the fire so often that they’re frightened it will happen here in Burgdorf. They’ve heard about it on the people’s radio and in their parents’ discussions over who really burned down the parliament building. Most parents repeat what’s on the radio, that the communists set the fire. But other parents whisper that the Nazis set the fire to frame the communists.
“We are safe here,” the teacher promises her boys. And hopes it’s true.
They want to believe her. Because they adore her. Because she makes them feel proud. Because she gets them to laugh till their belly muscles ache. Because—and this they don’t know but will figure out as men, those who’ll survive the next war—she keeps the shutters open at night, even in winter, to feel moon on her skin. It takes a certain kind of teacher to do this, one who leaps and runs with her boys when she takes them outdoors.
“What if the communists burn my barn, Fräulein Jansen?”
“What if they blow up our bridges?” Otto’s voice is fearful.
But some of her boys look excited.
Thekla Jansen knows why. As a girl, she built bonfires with her Catholic youth group. The girls and their leader would sit around the flames, roasting potatoes and competing with stories about creatures that arose from the underbellies of their dreams. In the mist—stories like that are always more exciting in the mist—the girls would huddle closer, shout with delicious fear, lure the beast inside their circle of flames, and laugh at it till it faded away.
Andreas raises his hand. “The communists sleep on steel floors, not in beds, that’s how tough they are.”
“We have three cows, and if we can’t get them out—”
“What if they sink our ferry?”
“Five cows. We have five.”
The teacher rests one hand on the piano, against the glass frog house where Icarus lives. The frog’s heartbeat pulsates on every surface of his body, flashy and rapid, as if his body were his heart. Icarus survives on the dead flies the boys peel off sticky coils of flypaper that dangle from their kitchen ceilings.
“I was afraid, too,” Thekla Jansen says. “Especially those nights after the Reichstag burned.”
Startled that their teacher is admitting to fear, her boys lean forward in the wooden rows of desks, two to each row. Most of her ten-year-olds are already in uniform, pins of the new flag on their brown collars. But the nine-year-olds, too young to join, wear threadbare shirts buttoned to their throats, borders of white collar only on those boys who own their schoolbooks; for the poor boys, it’s one book shared by two.
“For weeks I kept checking for flames and smoke above our roofs,” she says and wonders if her boys, too, will forever remember where they were when they found out.
For her it was at a costume ball, dancing with friends from her university days to music from an orchestra of clowns. Rosenmontag—Shrove Monday, the pomp and glory of parades and floats and music and masks, your last fling because once Lent began, you had to atone for your sins and mistakes. Rosenmontag, the next to last day of Karneval, when all of Germany let loose in frivolity, when—behind your mask—you could be anyone you chose. As Thekla danced in the red and black flamenco costume her mother, Almut, had sewn, words shattered the music, a man’s voice from the Volksempfänger—people’s radio saying the Reichstag was on fire in Berlin, saying it as though he didn’t believe it, his voice urgent and climbing like the highest note of music itself. The costumed dancers froze as if in a pantomime as the voice described how, there in Berlin, ghosts and jesters and Vikings and Chinamen and ballerinas and prophets and Indians and angels and cats and Dutch girls with wooden clogs were swarming from restaurants and bars toward the blazing cupola of the Reichstag, while men in uniform, firefighters and SA and police, tried to block the bizarre witnesses from getting too close.
“Do you remember where you were when you heard about the Reichstag fire?” Thekla Jansen asks her students.
A murmur. A hum. Several hands rising.
“I was allowed to stay up late because of Rosenmontag. A neighbor came in and told us.”
“I heard on the radio.”
“I went to sleep in my costume.”
“I was a cowboy with—”
“I was a Chinaman. My Oma made me a yellow hat that’s like an umbrella.”
“—with two holsters and a mustache.”
“My mother woke me up and took me outside,” Richard says. “Some houses were dark. She kept wondering who knew about the fire. And who didn’t.”
“Did you have a mask, Fräulein?”
“Black satin with red stones.” Thekla remembers how troubled she felt as she pulled off her mask, and again on Aschermittwoch—Ash Wednesday two days later, when the priest’s thumb drew the cross of ash on the forehead of each parishioner. The scent of ashes in his golden bowl tilted her back into the night of ashes falling on Berlin—Ashes to ashes. To whom must I answer?—as though the Reichstag fire had been the harbinger for this ash on her skin; and she envisioned future Ash Wednesdays, years funneling into decades, when the cool smudge on her forehead would summon that fire for her.
“It started fourteen minutes past nine,” says Franz. Pants too short, but quick with numbers.
“I was asleep. But my father told me the next morning and said it would be a different world tomorrow.”
“My mother said anything can happen now, and that we must stock up on food that can’t spoil.”
“We bought lentils and peas.”
“My father, he was yelling,” Bruno Stosick says. He’s the son of the teacher’s landlord, a brainy child who can recite every move of historic chess games but doesn’t know how to play in the dirt. Already, Bruno is a chess champion, has grown up within the Burgdorf Chess Club that meets every Tuesday in his family’s living room.
Soon after the teacher rented the apartment above the chess club, Bruno began sneaking up the steps in his socks to play his hiding games. He’d knock at her door, hide behind the coatrack in the hallway. When she’d open her door and pretend to be surprised nobody was there, he’d leap out, smelling of chalk and of sleep, tip his face to her—“I thought you’d never find me!”—such sweetness in his smile, it’s almost too much for a boy.
But Bruno isn’t smiling now. He’s imitating his father’s hoarse voice: “‘Everyone knows that damn Austrian started the fire!’”
Most of the students giggle.
But some don’t.
Bruno digs his fingernails into his palms. “My father says the Führer should be strung up by his—”
“Bruno!” Alarmed, the teacher cuts him off. She has never seen him like this. “We do not say swear words.”
As if ‘damn’ mattered one damn to me. But this is what she wants her boys to recall when they tell their group leaders or their parents about school: that their teacher scolded Bruno Stosick for saying damn—and not that Bruno’s father wants the Führer strung up by his balls. Or, rather, by his one and only ball. If rumors are to be trusted.
© 2011 Ursula Hegi