It was a birthday party for Nina, the girl from the Ukraine.
Everybody was lying on the grass between the two blocks of barracks. Actually it was two different blocks of grass, divided by a five-foot-high chain link fence. The women were on one side and the men were on the other.
A couple of weeks ago, before the new security guard’s boss arrived, there was a different fence there. It was full of holes, and even trampled down to the ground in a few places. And nobody cared who was hanging around on which side.
Animal said, “This man has a surprise or two in store, this Bavarian pig. And soon.” Animal had a nose for these things.
They were stretched out on the grass on the men’s side. They were looking over to the women’s side. If they were lucky, they might catch a glimpse under somebody’s skirt. The girls knew that, of course, so they were careful. They threw threatening looks now and then, and they laughed. Sparks maintained that some of them were wearing nothing at all underneath. “Couple of times I saw something.”
Sugar suggested to the ladies, “Let’s moon them all – then they’ll really see something.”
“Yeah, we know,” Sparks said, “but this was different.”
Everybody was talking all at the same time. The women were hooting and hollering. The men were calling over the fence to them. Gradually the men were going wild.
Nina sat on a chest parked on top of a little platform. She had flowers in her hair, and she was laughing.
When she arrived three months ago, she did nothing but cry. The SS had hanged both her brothers, and her father, in the middle of the square. She was forced to watch. Her mother too. Then the pigs had set fire to the whole town. They herded the women into railroad cars and shipped them to Germany. Her mother died of starvation along the way.
Everyone had been as kind as possible to Nina. The women made sure she didn’t have to work very hard. Particularly Erna Trietsch and Lena from Minsk spent a lot of time with her. They fed her, they held her, and slowly, Nina recovered. Now she was laughing.
Stash made a short speech, which was punctuated with much laughter. Then Stepan played his accordion. They they all sang, first two-part, then three-part harmonies, each song prettier than the last. Over in the houses people sat in their windows, looking over and clapping. Grandpa Thiel cried, “Fine shall she live, now, three times fine!” “Fine fine fine!” they all shouted.
The factory guards were grinning. They shouted out this or that in the midst of things, but carefully. Only fat old Kuhlmann, drunk as always, was loud and wanted to make a speech. “My dear children,” he began, but one of the other guards pulled him down from where he was standing.
The new boss had left earlier that evening and was not expected back until tomorrow morning, but one never knew for sure. And none of the guards particularly trusted any of the others. Invalid soldiers they all were, over 40 every one, and they were all afraid. Under no circumstances did they want to get sent to the front.
Stash came over and sat down where the crowd was thickest. He had a pretty high voice, and usually sang solo or else led the crowd. He threw his head back, closed his eyes, and sang. A few men started dancing. Others were clapping. “A wonderful celebration,” Stash said. “For Nina. Soon, it won’t be long at all now, we’ll be celebrating much more, with lots to eat and drink,” etc etc.
“Schnaps,” Animal said. “It’s just too bad that we don’t even have a sip of schnaps for Nina’s party.”
They had actually been thinking about this for awhile. Food was getting harder and harder to come by. Especially the Russians’ food rations were getting smaller. Of course they all helped the Russians out; everyone gave up a certain percentage.
It was under the direction of Heini Spormann. Stinting was not allowed. Phantom went around picking up the extra rations either Friday or Saturday, right after people had picked up their food for the coming week. “Here comes Phantom,” they would say. “And what might he require of us?” They would lay bread, margarine, beets etc etc out on the table. They would weigh, slice, and divide under Phantom’s watchful eye.
Sometimes Phantom would say, “Not so much margarine this time.” Or, “Why not just give them an extra spoonful of kraut, eh?” They usually grumbled about it.
“Herbert,” – that was Animal – “eats so much, he’s a bottomless pit,” Herta Ronsdorf might say, for instance. Or Olga Pottmann would say, “Just look at him – he’s working so much the skin is falling from his bones.” To which Phantom might answer, “Animal’s too fat anyway.” Or, “Yeah, right, working so much, like right now stretched out there on the sofa, your Oller.”
Usually they managed to work things out, plus or minus a little fussing. But now it was becoming a matter of real hunger. Phantom, for instance, no longer got a second slice of bread in the mornings. Beet or cabbage soup was all there was these days. Maybe a few pieces of potato thrown in.
ThinMan said, “I can’t sleep at night anymore, I’m so hungry.” But that of course was an exaggeration.
“But we have to do something,” ThinMan said. And they always came back around to ThinMan’s Grandma’s plan. “Absolute nonsense,” Animal said. “You know what the situation is, and besides, it would be even more impossible now.”
The situation was like this. What had once been Wiegand’s old Cafe and Market, at the old railway station, was now an unloading and storage area for food supplies for the Wehrmacht’s elite. Every week rail cars rolled up to the loading ramp, and everything was unloaded and stored in Wiegand’s stockrooms. And a couple of times each week vans came from all directions, and were packed with crates, sacks, cartons, full of who knows what all. “Delicacies exclusively for the Officers’ Corp,” suspected ThinMan’s Grandma. And then the vans drove away again. And all this right in front of their eyes.
The storehouse workers were strictly unapproachable. Old SS men, now on less-than-active service. Therefore enemies.
Berta Niehus used to work at Wiegand’s, in their office at the station. She knew every corner of the place. She had made a drawing of the floor layout, sketched to scale. Every door, every cranny, every step was included. A small part of the back wall of the storage area, “the corner chamber,” as Berta Niehus put it, shared a wall with Levering’s wood shed. The wood shed was directly in back of the place. And this aforementioned corner chamber had a back wall made of wood. Very old pine wood, too, full of holes.
“With a saw, I tell you, it would be like scissors to paper,” the old woman said. She pounded her finger on the drawing as she said this. “I am old, and chained to this wheelchair. Under other circumstances I wouldn’t have even discussed this with you. I simply would have showered our people, one fine morning, with gifts of goose liver pate, smoked ham, champagne and candied fruits. Seeing the happiness in their eyes would be reward enough” etc etc, the way ThinMan’s Grandma always went on.
Getting into Levering’s shed was easy. It was true, the back wall was made of pine wood, boards nailed in place horizontally. They had only to break a couple of these to get through. Sawing a hole in the wall behind it was a little more difficult. But they managed it in one evening’s work. They did the sawing under cover of the noise from the antiaircraft artillery. Then ThinMan, who was the smallest and thinnest, was pushed into the hole.
Soon he started handing them carton after carton. The others took them from him and piled them up in Levering’s shed. Then bottles and more bottles started coming out of the hole.
It was already getting light outside when ThinMan crawled back through. “The corner chamber is empty now,” he said, “and there’s no way no swine is going to get into those other rooms. Steel door, it has to be at least two inches thick.” They replaced the sawed-out pieces. Then they hid all the cartons and bottles under the woodpile.
The next night they came and picked up everything with their wagon. The 427 bottles all contained schnaps. Clear schnaps, of the cheaper sort. The 300 cartons all contained rubbers.
For a long while Berta Niehus said nothing. She just stared at the cartons, a bottle of schnaps in her hand, from which she took a sip now and then.
But then one day she let it out. “A disappointment, there’s no way to get around that. The schnaps needs no more discussion. It may not be a delicacy but it is perfectly drinkable. They’ll have a good time with that. The men and women will be drinking the stuff until it is running out of their ears. Although that doesn’t serve the purpose. Your father, dear Spormann, would have uncorked all these very same bottles and poured out their contents and used the empty bottles for something useful. I certainly don’t have the heart to do that. But here, this overwhelming quantity of rubbers, war supplies for twelve companies, no, I just, well, it’s simply –” etc etc.
They kept the rubbers under lock and key. A few were given out here and there. Stash of course got a couple of cartons. The schnaps was distributed, and it disappeared rather quickly, so that today, for Nina’s birthday, there was not a bottle to be found, anywhere.
“Mostly what we lack here is potatoes,” Stash said. “And bread.”
“And how do we do something about that?” Phantom asked.
Food cards were no longer worth anything. The theater they had to make with the farmers was getting more and more dangerous, and besides, they no longer had anything to barter with. The traps they laid in Dohmann’s thicket were usually empty. They did catch a young buck rabbit, the week before last, but that was all.
The party came to an end. Several people had to make their way to the night shift. Voices called back and forth to each other as the crowd dispersed. Then the yard was empty again.
“Lorenz Fuchs!” Phantom said. “Now why didn’t I think of him sooner?”
They were sitting on Merrick’s wall. “Well what then?” ThinMan asked. “What’s the deal with Lorenz Fuchs?”
Phantom explained, “He’s in charge of the trains’ loading and unloading. He would know which cars were headed for the storehouse.”
“Yeah, so what else is new?” Sugar asked.
“Well, if we knew that too...” Phantom began, and he kept talking and kept talking. Their eyes got bigger and bigger. When he finished, Sparks said, “Damnation. Damnation, if only that would work.”
Animal asked, “Who should go after Lorenz Fuchs?”
Phantom said, “ThinMan’s Grandma.” And nobody said anything for a good long while.
Berta Niehus used to be good friends with Lorenz Fuchs, before she was lamed. Both of them had been widowed since years ago, and Lorenz Fuchs, who had a sense of the higher things in life, and had manners, and read a lot, felt drawn to ThinMan’s Grandma, whom he called a “cultivated lady.” They would take long walks together, discussing God and the world.
Lorenz Fuchs demonstrated, as Berta Niehus put it, an extraordinary inclination towards a philosophy of the elite. He believed in the existence of a superior race, and even privately counted himself among their number. That wasn’t particularly remarkable, even if Lorenz Fuchs was just as much a member of the common proletariat as the rest of them. He was a train engineer, but just a train engineer, whereas everyone else was a soldier. He was, namely, short. And he had a hunched back, and, with his head held slightly to one side, he flunked the physical. This was probably the reason for his philosophy, to make up for his feelings of inadequacy.
But unfortunately he didn’t just hold privately to his philosophy. At the beginning of ’41 he joined the other side, the brownshirts. He even went so far as to join the Party. Shortly after that he was named manager at the train station.
Then Berta Niehus fell down a set of stairs, and lay twisted in a heap at the bottom. From then on she was paralyzed from the waist down.
At that time, which was before the great bombout, she still lived in the same house as Lorenz Fuchs. He came by with a large bouquet of flowers.
But ThinMan’s father dumped the flowers onto his head tilted slightly to one side. He said, “There you go, you superior man.”
Life didn’t treat Lorenz Fuchs very well after that. Wherever he appeared, everyone else disappeared. And the things that nobody used to care about, his hunched back, his tilted head, his extreme shortness, well, suddenly he heard about them every day. “Well there’s the rascal; haven’t you given up that hunchback yet? Look at him, if only once he would hold his head up straight,” etc etc, the way people can talk, when it’s about somebody they don’t like.
But the thing that spoke up for him now was the fact that he didn’t take revenge on anybody, even if he did know quite a few things about quite a few people. Or possibly the brownshirts didn’t take him seriously.
For some time now he had been trying, timidly, to make contact with people again. He wasn’t dumb, of course. He could look at a map of Europe and not go crazy like the others, who were getting shriller and babbling away about wonder weapons. The outcome didn’t look so good for the master race in the summer of ’44. He knew he would have to live right here, if he was going to keep living at all, and he wanted to do that. For that to be possible, he was going to have to do a few things.
This was where Phantom’s plan came in. Lorenz Fuchs needed to do nothing more than seek out a car headed for the Wehrmacht’s storeroom, mark it by drawing a chalk line under its seal, and let it roll, along with a couple of other cars, empty ones, onto holding track 3.
But Berta Niehus said, “No, not with that deformed Fascist.” Even though ThinMan painstakingly talked with her, for a long time, about how and what all they were going to be unloading out of this car. Animal put in a few words too, about how sometimes people have to do things that they don’t much like, but that serve the situation. The old woman said, “Those words, coming from your mouth, sound most unbelievable. Away with you. I don’t want to hear from you about this again.”
“You drew blood,” ThinMan said to Animal. “I know my Grandma. In a couple of days she’ll come around.”
The next day she let them know she would cooperate. “I’ll talk with him,” she said. “This evening in the bunker, over where he normally stays. Nor will I pull any punches, out there on the bunker mats.”
For the occasion she wore her black dress, grey scarf, and gloves. As ThinMan was pushing her over to Block 4, she was sighing vigorously and mumbling about sacrifices and stuff like that. “You leave us immediately,” she said to ThinMan. “And in exactly five minutes you be back to rescue me from this cretin.”
Lorenz Fuchs was sitting by himself on a bench, reading. He jumped to his feet in shock when he saw Berta Niehus. She said to him, “I have something to talk to you about. Over there, in the corner.”
ThinMan left. He smoked a cigarette. He came back. He saw how earnestly they were talking to each other. He left again, he came back, and this went on for exactly two hours.
The others thought that was a good sign. And so it was.
Afterwards Berta Niehus would only say that the matter had been arranged. Shortly there would be two railcars there, destined for the stockrooms. Fuchs would let one roll away with the empty cars. Tomorrow morning already.
“Not more rubbers,” ThinMan said.
“Impossible,” the old woman said. “The bill of freight doesn’t specify what’s in the cars, the fiend, see here for yourself. But both cars are headed this way from southern France. They get a lot of goods from there, and not rubbers. You can depend on that.”
Holding track 3 was a dead track, slightly elevated. It ran from the main line through the community gardens to just before the overpass for the Rhine line. At that point, just before the gardens, sat the converted railway car, first class, where the Niehuses lived.
There was a tunnel, three feet by five feet, with two almost-spacious rooms off it, underneath the embankment for the Rhine line. The entrance to this underground tunnel lay under a rug in the bedroom ThinMan shared with his younger sisters. The exit came out in the bushes by the side of the gardens. And from there to the end of holding track 3, where the car in question would be sitting between two empty cars, was only a matter of about 400 yards.
Not far, but there was no good way to get there. The stuff would have to be dragged under the bushes, all the way from the car to the tunnel opening, on stretchers. They had made a path through the bushes all along the length of the embankment.
Railway station police roamed the territory at night, with hounds. Naturally this happened less frequently around holding track 3. Nonetheless, everything would have to go very quickly.
Finally, and this was very important, the car would have to be blown up, so that it looked like a bomb had hit it, since the goons were getting smarter every day. At the slightest hint of suspicion, they would be sifting things like a sieve. If they found anything, then it was strictly all over. They called that theft, and they gave it the death penalty.
And so that’s why there were sitting around in the Niehus’ converted railway car, first class, in the middle of August ’44, tying twelve sticks of dynamite together.
It made a half-pound package. They found the stuff for it in the supplies box that a lone Pioneer had forgotten and left behind in Bohr’s yard last winter. Animal had pushed the box under a pile of wood.
“Why don’t you just use a Panzerfaust?” Sugar wanted to know. “It would be much simpler.”
“Because those only work on iron, they just sit there and get real hot,” Phantom answered. “And the car is made of wood. It just wouldn’t work.”
He tested the caps to the sticks. “Careful,” ThinMan’s Grandma said, “you mustn’t disturb the powder. Tap it very, very lightly. Give that to me. Push me in front of the door. I’ll fix the fuse for you, with my teeth no less. I need some insulating tape, thread, and some scissors.”
“Out of the question,” ThinMan said.
But Berta Niehus laughed. “I did this a dozen times a day in February ’19, when the troops were marching under General Watter from Muenster to Essen. We did what we could, to try and stop the Whites.” She wheeled her chair outside, singing, “We’ve sworn our loyalty to dear old Karl, and Rosa, we give you our hand.”
The chickens in the front yard stopped cackling. Sparks, who was sitting on the roof and keeping lookout, said, “When you fly into the air I’ll catch you.” But it didn’t come out sounding funny.
The others sat inside, watching the old woman through the half-open door. She twisted the fuse string inside the cap, took it in her mouth, and kept turning it, using her teeth to push the string farther into the tin capsule. ThinMan held his hands in front of his eyes. Everybody was sweating.
Hannelore and Doris, ThinMan’s younger sisters, were cooing in the next room. They were playing store, with pebbles and sand. “Done!” exclaimed Berta Niehus. “Bring me back inside.”
Then she tied the sticks together with thread, six to a bundle. She carefully knotted another string onto the fuse string she had already prepared. She said, “Here in the middle of this string is a line of powder. It burns 4 inches in 10 seconds. We have about a yard of it here, so that means you have more than a minute. That’s enough.” She clipped the string at an angle and taped up the end. She said, “Pack it in the middle of the car. Strew some stuff around here and there. Lay something on top of the sticks, but carefully. You must leave the fuse hanging out. Hang the other bundle on the coupler of the next empty wagon. Then take the tape off the end of the fuse. Strike a match, and light it so that you can hear it hissing lightly. Then you get out of there, as fast as you can. Go at least 150 yards, throw yourselves to the ground, and cross your arms over your head. Don’t get up again until you’ve heard the blasts, two of course. So, let’s rehearse that a couple of times.”
It was still light outside when the first bombers began flying over their heads. They were headed north, up the Ruhr River.
“We’re almost there,” the old woman said. She was nearly crying because she couldn’t go with them.
In the bedroom they shoved the rug to the side, took off the trap door, and crawled into the passageway. They continued on their knees. They dragged the stretchers with the dynamite on them. Sugar opened the storm sewer cover, to which they had glued dried grasses. They climbed out.
They hid under the bushes, and waited. The first B-17 bombers were coming back from their mission up the Ruhr. On their way back they threw a couple of pieces on the town for good measure. Slowly it grew dark.
Then the hum of the second wave approached them. They ran for it – Animal and Phantom, ThinMan and Sparks, with a stretcher each. Sugar stayed behind in the bushes, with the explosives.
The antiaircraft artillery at the train station clattered away in high gear as Phantom broke the car’s seal, unlatched the bars, and slid the door open. He crawled in. Immediately he rolled the door shut again, and flicked on his flashlight.
As he looked around he saw casks. Nothing but casks, neatly stacked on top of each other. Fifty-liter casks, he would have guessed. He rolled one back and forth. It sloshed and smelled quite distinctive. Not like schnaps, but similar. Roman numerals were painted on the side of it, and words, probably in French. One of those words Phantom understood: vin.
He thought for a moment, “Maybe I’ll just leave all this here and go.” He opened the door, and Animal climbed in. “Wine,” Phantom said. “Wine, wine, and nothing but wine. Dammit, why do we have to have such bad luck?”
“Nevertheless,” Animal whispered, “what’s there is there, so let’s get to it.” They rolled the casks to the door. ThinMan and Sparks took them. Two of them fit onto a stretcher at one time. They ran for it, and threw the casks into the hole, and ran back again, and did the same thing again. They thought their arms were going to break.
Then there was quiet in the air. They kept bringing casks. When the third attack hummed over them, they were ready to bring the stretcher one last time, this time with the explosives on it.
And while Sparks and ThinMan carried the empty stretchers back into the bushes, Phantom and Animal set up the explosives. Phantom put his bundle in the middle of the car. Animal tied his to the coupler of the next car. “Ready,” he cried, “on three.” They counted, loud.
It began hissing. Phantom jumped out of the car. They ran. After about 150 yards they threw themselves to the ground, arms crossed over their heads. A couple of seconds more, and then they came, one shortly after the other: cracks, and splinterings. They waited another moment. Then they ran back.
The car was broken in the middle, roof collapsed, sidewalls completely blown out. On the next wagon the wheels and the braking mechanism were gone.
They heard applause. They laughed and ran over to the hole.
They had to keep the casks hidden in one of the rooms off the passageway. They lasted a good long while.
The next evening they were all sitting around the table in the Niehus’ railway car, first class. Klara and Rosa, ThinMan’s older twin sisters, were also there. Kerosene lamps were burning, and they were drinking wine from teacups, laughing, telling stories. Hannelore and Doris had fallen asleep right there on the floor. Berta Niehus said, “Well now, six hundred liters of wine from Burgundy, best quality. We were expecting otherwise, but we should be happy.”
And so they were.