A Man Without Breath by Philip Kerr – Extract

A Man Without Breath


 Monday, March 1st 1943

Franz Meyer stood up at the head of the table, glanced down, touched the cloth and awaited our silence. With his fair hair, blue eyes and neoclassical features that looked as if they’d been carved by Arno Breker, Hitler’s official state sculptor, he was no one’s idea of a Jew. Half of the SS and SD were more obviously Semitic. Meyer took a deep, almost euphoric breath, gave a broad grin that was part relief and part joie-de-vivre, and raised his glass to each of the four women seated around the table. None were Jewish and yet, by the racial stereotypes beloved of the propaganda ministry, they might have been; all were Germans with strong noses, dark eyes and even darker hair. For a moment Meyer seemed choked with emotion, and when at last he was able to speak, there were tears in his eyes.

‘I’d like to thank my wife and her sisters for your efforts on my behalf,’ he said. ‘To do what you did took great courage, and I can’t tell you what it meant to those of us who were imprisoned in the Jewish Welfare Office to know that there were so many people on the outside who cared enough to come and demonstrate on our behalf.’

‘I still can’t believe they haven’t arrested us,’ said Meyer’s wife, Siv.

‘They’re so used to people obeying orders,’ said his sister-­in-law, Klara, ‘that they don’t know what to do.’

‘We’ll go back to Rosenstrasse tomorrow,’ insisted Siv. ‘We won’t stop until everyone in there is released. All two thousand of them. We’ve shown what we can do when public opinion is mobilized. We have to keep the pressure up.’

‘Yes,’ said Meyer. ‘And we will. We will. But right now I’d like to propose a toast. To our new friend Bernie Gunther. But for him and his colleagues at the War Crimes Bureau, I’d probably still be imprisoned in the Jewish Welfare Office. And who knows where after that?’ He smiled. ‘To Bernie.’

There were six of us in the cosy little dining room in the Meyers’ apartment in Lützowerstrasse. As four of them stood up and toasted me silently, I shook my head. I wasn’t sure I deserved Franz Meyer’s thanks, and besides, the wine we were drinking was a decent German red – a Spätburgunder from long before the war that he and his wife would have done better to have traded for some food instead of wasting it on me. Any wine – let alone a good German red – was almost impossible to come by in Berlin.

Politely I waited for them to drink my health before standing up to contradict my host. ‘I’m not sure I can claim to have had much influence on the SS,’ I explained. ‘I spoke to a couple of cops I know who were policing your demonstration and they told me there’s a strong rumour doing the rounds that most of the prisoners arrested on Saturday as part of the factory action will probably be released in a few days.’

‘That’s incredible,’ said Klara. ‘But what does it mean, Bernie? Do you think the authorities are actually going soft on deportations?’

Before I could offer my opinion the air-raid warning siren sounded. We all looked at each other in surprise; it had been almost two years since the last air raid by the royal Air Force.

‘We should go to the shelter,’ I said. ‘Or the basement, perhaps.’

Meyer nodded. ‘Yes, you’re right,’ he said, firmly. ‘You should all go. Just in case it’s for real.’

I fetched my coat and hat off the stand and turned back to Meyer.

‘But you’re coming too, aren’t you?’ I said.

‘Jews aren’t permitted in the shelters. Perhaps you didn’t notice it before. Well, there’s no reason why you should have. I don’t think there’s been an air raid since we started to wear the yellow star.’

I shook my head. ‘No, I didn’t.’ I shrugged. ‘So, where are Jews supposed to go?’

‘To hell, of course. At least, that’s what they hope.’ This time Meyer’s grin was sardonic. ‘Besides, people know this is a Jewish apartment, and since the law requires that homes be left with their doors and windows open, to minimize the effect of a pressure wave from a bomb blast, that’s also an invitation to some local thief to come and steal from us.’ He shook his head. ‘So I shall stay here.’

I glanced out of the window. In the street below, hundreds of people were already being herded toward the local shelter by uniformed police. There wasn’t much time to lose.

‘Franz,’ said Siv, ‘we’re not going there without you. Just leave your coat. If they can’t see your star they’ll have to assume you’re German. You can carry me in and say I fainted, and if I show my pass and say I’m your wife then no one will be any the wiser.’

‘She’s right,’ I said.

‘And if I’m arrested, what then? I’ve only just been released.’ Meyer shook his head and laughed. ‘Besides, it’s probably a false alarm. Hasn’t Fat Hermann promised us that this is the best-defended city in Europe?’

The siren continued to wail outside like some dreadful mechanical clarion announcing the end of a night shift in the smoking factories of hell.

Siv Meyer sat down at the table and clasped her hands tight. ‘If you’re not going, then I’m not going.’

‘Neither am I,’ Klara said, sitting down beside her.

‘There’s no time to argue about this,’ said Meyer. ‘You should go. All of you.’

‘He’s right,’ I said, more urgently now as already we could hear the drone of the bombers in the distance; it was obvious this was no false alarm. I opened the door and waved the four women toward me. ‘Come on,’ I said.

‘No,’ said Siv. ‘We’re staying.’

The two other sisters glanced at each other and then sat down alongside their Jewish brother-in-law. This left me on my feet with a coat in my hand and a nervous look on my face. After all, I’d seen what our own bombers had done to Minsk and parts of France. I put on the coat and shoved my hands in the pockets so as to conceal the fact that they were shaking.

‘I don’t think they’re coming to drop propaganda leaflets,’ I said. ‘Not this time.’

‘Yes, but it’s not civilians like us they’re after, surely,’ said Siv. ‘It’s the government district. They’ll know there’s a hospital near here. The RAF won’t want to risk hitting the Catholic Hospital, will they? The English aren’t like that. It’s the Wilhelmstrasse they’ll be after.’

‘How will they know from two thousand feet up in the air?’ I heard myself utter weakly.

‘She’s right,’ said Meyer. ‘It’s not the west of Berlin they’re targeting. It’s the east. Which means it’s probably just as well we’re none of us in Rosenstrasse tonight.’ He smiled at me. ‘You should go, Bernie. We’ll be all right. You’ll see.’

‘I expect you’re right,’ I said and, deciding to ignore the air-raid siren like the others, I started to take off my coat. ‘All the same, I can hardly leave you all here.’

‘Why not?’ asked Klara.

I shrugged, but what it really came down to was this: I could hardly leave and still manage to look good in Klara’s lovely brown eyes, and I was quite keen that she should have a good impression of me; but I didn’t feel I could say this to her, not yet.

For a moment I felt my chest tighten as my nerves continued to get the better of me. Then I heard some bombs explode in the distance and breathed a sigh of relief. Back in the trenches, during the Great War, when you could hear the shells exploding somewhere else it usually meant you were safe, because it was commonly held that you never heard the one that killed you.

‘Sounds like it’s north Berlin that’s getting it,’ I said, leaning in the doorway. ‘The petroleum refinery on Thaler Strasse, probably. It’s the only real target around here. But I think we should at least get under the table. Just in case a stray bomb—’

I think that was the last thing I said, and probably it was the fact I was standing in the doorway that saved my life, because just then the glass in the nearest window frame seemed to melt into a thousand drops of light. Some of those old Berlin apartment buildings were made to last, and I later learned that the bomb that blew up the one we were in – not to mention the hospital on Lützowerstrasse – and flattened it in a split second would certainly have killed me had not the lintel above my head and the stout oak door that was hanging inside it resisted the weight of the roof’s metal joist, for this is what killed Siv Meyer and her three sisters.

After that there was darkness and silence, except for the sound of a kettle on a gas plate whistling as it came slowly to the boil, although this was probably just the sensation in my battered eardrums. It was as if someone had switched off an electric light and then pulled away the floorboards I’d been standing on, and the effect of the world disappearing from underneath my feet might have been similar to the sensation of being hooded and hanged on a gallows. I don’t know. All I really remember of what happened is that I was upside down lying on a pile of rubble when I recovered con­sciousness, and there was a door on top of my face which, for several minutes until I recovered enough breath in my bomb-blasted lungs to moan for help, I was convinced was the lid of my own damn coffin.

I had left Kripo in the summer of 1942 and joined the Wehr­macht War Crimes Bureau with the connivance of my old colleague Arthur Nebe. As the commander of Special Action Group B, which was headquartered in Smolensk, where tens of thousands of Russian Jews had been murdered, Nebe knew a thing or two about war crimes himself. I’m certain it appealed to his Berliner’s black humour that I should find myself attached to an organization of old Prussian judges, most of whom were staunchly anti-Nazi. Dedicated to the military ideals as laid down in the Geneva Convention of 1929, they believed there was a proper and honourable way for the army – any army – to fight a war. Nebe must have thought it very funny that there existed a judicial body within the German High Command that not only resisted having Party members in its distinguished ranks but was also quite prepared to devote its considerable resources to the investigation and prosecution of crimes committed by and against German soldiers: theft, looting, rape and murder could all be the subject of lengthy and serious inquiries – sometimes earning their perpetrators a death sentence. I thought it was kind of funny myself, but then, like Nebe, I’m also from Berlin, and it’s known that we have a strange sense of humour. By the winter of 1943, you found your laughs where you could, and I don’t know how else to describe a situation in which you can have an army corporal hanged for the rape and murder of a Russian peasant girl in one village that’s only a few miles from another village where an SS special action group has just murdered twenty-five thousand men, women and children. I expect the Greeks have a word for that kind of comedy, and if I’d paid a little more attention to my classics master at school I might have known what that word was.

The judges – they were nearly all judges – who worked for the Bureau were not hypocrites any more than they were Nazis, and they saw no reason why their moral standards should decline just because the government of Germany had no moral standards at all. The Greeks certainly had a word for that all right, and I even knew what it was, although it’s fair to say I’d had to learn how to spell it again. They called that kind of behaviour ethics, and my being concerned with rightness and wrongness felt good, since it helped to restore in me a sense of pride in who and what I was. At least for a while, anyway.

Most of the time I assisted the Bureau’s judges – several of whom I’d known during the Weimar republic – in taking depositions from witnesses or finding new cases for the Bureau to investigate. That was how I first met Siv Meyer. She was a friend of a girl called Renata Matter, who was a good friend of mine and who worked at the Adlon Hotel. Siv played the piano in the orchestra at the Adlon.

I met her at the hotel on Sunday February 28th, which was the day after Berlin’s last Jews – some ten thousand people – had been arrested for deportation to ghettoes in the East. Franz Meyer was a worker at the Osram electric light-bulb factory in Wilmersdorf, which was where he was arrested, but before this he had been a doctor, and this was how he came to find himself working as a medical orderly on a German hospital ship that had been attacked and sunk by a British submarine off the coast of Norway in August 1941. My boss and the Bureau chief, Johannes Goldsche, had tried to inves­tigate the case, but at the time it was thought that there had been no survivors. So when Renata Matter told me about Franz Meyer’s story, I went to see his wife at their apartment in Lützowerstrasse.

It was a short walk from my own apartment on Fasanen­strasse, with a view of the canal and the local town hall, and only a short walk from the Schulstrasse synagogue where many of Berlin’s Jews had been held in transit on their way to an unknown fate in the East. Meyer had only escaped arrest himself because he was a Mischehe – a Jew who was married to a German.

From the wedding photograph on the Biedermeier sideboard it was easy to see what they saw in each other. Franz Meyer was absurdly handsome and very like Franchot Tone, the movie actor who was once married to Joan Crawford. Siv was just beautiful, and there’s nothing absurd about that; more importantly so were her three sisters, Klara, Frieda and Hedwig, all of whom were present when I met their sister for the first time.

‘Why didn’t your husband come forward before?’ I asked Siv Meyer over a cup of ersatz coffee, which was the only kind of coffee anyone had now. ‘This incident took place on August 30th 1941. Why is he only willing to speak about it now?’

‘Clearly you don’t know very much about what it’s like to be a Jew in Berlin,’ she said.

‘You’re right. I don’t.’

‘No Jew wants to draw attention to himself by being a part of any inquiry in Germany. Even if it is a good cause.’

I shrugged. ‘I can understand that,’ I said. ‘A witness for the Bureau one day and a prisoner of the Gestapo the next. On the other hand I do know what it’s like to be a Jew in the East, and if you want to prevent your husband from ending up there I hope you’re telling the truth about all this. At the War Crimes Bureau we get lots of people who try to waste our time.’

‘You were in the East?’

‘Minsk,’ I said, simply. ‘They sent me back here to Berlin and the War Crimes Bureau for questioning my orders.’

‘What’s happening out there? In the ghettoes? In the con­centration camps? One hears so many different stories about what resettlement amounts to.’

I shrugged. ‘I don’t think the stories even get close to the horror of what’s happening in the eastern ghettoes. And by the way, there is no resettlement. There’s just starvation and death.’

Siv Meyer let out a sigh and then exchanged a glance with her sisters. I was fond of looking at her three sisters myself. It made a very pleasant change to take a deposition from an attractive and well-spoken woman instead of an injured soldier.

‘Thank you for being honest, Herr Gunther,’ she said. ‘As well as the stories one hears so many lies.’ She nodded. ‘Since you’ve been so honest let me be honest, too. The main reason my husband hasn’t talked before about the sinking of the SS Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim is because he hardly wanted to make a gift of some useful anti-British propaganda to Doctor Goebbels. Of course now that he’s been arrested it seems that this might be his only chance of staying out of a concentration camp.’

‘We don’t have much to do with the propaganda ministry, Frau Meyer. Not if we can help it. Perhaps it’s them you should be speaking to.’

‘I don’t doubt you mean what you say, Herr Gunther,’ said Siv Meyer. ‘Nevertheless British war crimes against defenceless German hospital ships make good propaganda.’

‘That’s just the kind of story which is especially useful now,’ added Klara. ‘After Stalingrad.’

I had to admit she was probably right. The surrender of the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad on February 2nd had been the greatest disaster suffered by the Nazis since their coming to power; and Goebbels’s speech on the 18th urging total war on the German people certainly needed incidents like the sinking of a hospital ship to prove that there was no way back for us now – that it was victory or nothing.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘I can’t promise anything, but if you tell me where they’re holding your husband I’ll go there right now and see him, Frau Meyer. If I think there’s something in his story, I’ll contact my superiors and see if we can get him released as a key witness for an inquiry.’

‘He’s being detained at the Jewish Welfare Office, on Rosen­strasse,’ said Siv. ‘We’ll come with you, if you like.’

I shook my head. ‘That’s quite all right. I know where it is.’

‘You don’t understand,’ said Klara. ‘We’re all going there anyway. To protest against Franz’s detention.’

‘I don’t think that’s a very good idea,’ I said. ‘You’ll be arrested.’

‘There are lots of wives who are going,’ said Siv. ‘They can’t arrest us all.’

‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘In case you haven’t noticed, they’ve arrested all of the Jews.’

Hearing footsteps near my head, I tried to push the heavy wooden door off my face, but my left hand was trapped and the right too painful to use. Someone shouted something and a minute or two later I felt myself slide a little as the rubble that I lay on shifted like the scree on a steep mountain side, and then the door was lifted away to reveal my rescuers. The apartment building was almost completely gone, and all that remained in the cold moonlight was one high chimney con­taining an ascending series of fireplaces. Several hands placed me onto a stretcher and I was carried off the tangled, smoking heap of bricks, concrete, leaking water pipes and wooden planks and laid in the middle of the road, where I enjoyed a perfect view of a building burning in the distance and then the beams from Berlin’s defence searchlights as they continued to search the sky for enemy planes; but the siren was sounding the all-clear and I could hear the footsteps of people already coming up from the shelters to look for what was left of their homes. I wondered if my own home in Fasanenstrasse was all right. Not that there was very much in it. Nearly everything of value had been sold or traded on the black market.

Gradually, I began to move my head one way and the other until I felt able to push myself up on one elbow to look around. But I could hardly breathe: my chest was still full of dust and smoke and the exertion provoked a fit of coughing that was only alleviated when a man I half recognized helped me to a drink of water and laid a blanket on top of me.

About a minute later there was a loud shout and the chimney came down on top of the spot where I’d been lying. The dust from its collapse covered me, so I was moved further down the street and set down next to some others who were awaiting medical attention. Klara was lying beside me now at less than an arm’s length. Her dress was hardly torn, her eyes were open, and her body was quite unmarked. I called her name several times before it finally dawned on me that she was dead. It was as if her life had just stopped like a clock, and it hardly seemed possible that so much of her future – she couldn’t have been older than thirty – had disappeared in the space of a few seconds.

Other corpses were laid out in the street next to her. I couldn’t see how many. I sat up to look for Franz Meyer and the others, but the effort was too much and I fell back and closed my eyes. And fainted, I suppose.

‘Give us back our men.’

You could hear them three streets away – a large and angry crowd of women – and as we turned the corner of Rosenstrasse I felt my jaw slacken. I hadn’t seen anything like this on the streets of Berlin since before Hitler came to power. And whoever would have thought that wearing a nice hat and carrying a handbag was the best way to dress when you were opposing the Nazis?

‘release our husbands,’ shouted the mob of women as we pushed our way along the street. ‘release our husbands now.’

There were many more of them than I had been expecting – perhaps several hundred. Even Klara Meyer looked surprised, but not as surprised as the cops and SS who were guarding the Jewish Welfare Office. They gripped their machine pistols and rifles and muttered curses and abuse at the women standing nearest to the door and looked horrified to find themselves ignored or even roundly cursed back. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be: if you had a gun, then people were supposed to do what they were told. That’s page one of how to be a Nazi.

The welfare office on Rosenstrasse near Berlin’s Alexander­platz was a grey granite Wilhelmine building with a saddle roof next to a synagogue – formerly the oldest in Berlin – partly destroyed by the Nazis in November 1938, and within spitting distance of the Police Praesidium where I had spent most of my adult working life. I might no longer have been working for Kripo but I’d managed to keep my beer-token – the brass identity disc that commanded such craven respect in most German citizens.

‘We’re decent German women,’ shouted one woman. ‘Loyal to the Leader and to the Fatherland. You can’t speak to us like that, you cheeky young bastard.’

‘I can speak to anyone like that who’s misguided enough to be married to a Jew,’ I heard one of the uniformed cops – a corporal – say to her. ‘Go home, lady, or you’ll be shot.’

‘You need a good spanking you little pip,’ said another woman. ‘Does your mother know you’re such an arrogant whelp?’

‘You see?’ said Klara, triumphantly. ‘They can’t shoot us all.’

‘Can’t we?’ sneered the corporal. ‘When we have the orders to shoot, I can promise you’ll get it first, granny.’

‘Take it easy corporal,’ I said and flashed my beer token in front of his face. ‘There’s really no need to be rude to these ladies. Especially on a Sunday afternoon.’

‘Yes sir,’ he said, smartly. ‘Sorry sir.’ He nodded back over his shoulder. ‘Are you going in there, sir?’

‘Yes,’ I said. I turned to Klara and Siv. ‘I’ll try to be as quick as I can.’

‘Then if you would be so kind,’ said the corporal, ‘we need orders, sir. No one’s told us what to do. Just to stay here and stop people from going in. Perhaps you might mention that, sir.’

I shrugged. ‘Sure, corporal. But from what I can see you’re already doing a grand job.’

‘We are?’

‘You’re keeping the peace, aren’t you?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘You can’t keep the peace if you start shooting at all these ladies, now can you?’ I smiled at him and then patted his shoulder. ‘In my experience, corporal, the best police work looks like nothing at all and is always soon forgotten.’

I was unprepared for the scene that met me inside, where the smell was already intolerable: a welfare office is not designed to be a transit camp for two thousand prisoners. Men and women with identity tags on string around their necks like travelling children were lined up to use a lavatory that had no door, while others were crammed fifty or sixty to an office where it was standing room only. Welfare parcels – many of them brought by the women outside – filled another room where they had been tossed, but no one was complaining. Things were quiet. After almost a decade of Nazi rule Jews knew better than to complain. It was only the police sergeant in charge of these people who seemed inclined to bemoan his lot, and as he searched a clipboard for Franz Meyer’s name and then led me to the second-floor office where the man was being held, he began to unroll the barbed S-wire of his sharp complaint:

‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with all these people. No one’s told me a damn thing. How long they’re going to be here. How to make them comfortable. How to answer all of these bloody women who are demanding answers. It’s not so easy, I can tell you. All I’ve got is what was in this office building when we turned up yesterday. Toilet paper ran out within an hour of us being here. And Christ only knows how I’m going to feed them. There’s nothing open on a Sunday.’

‘Why don’t you open those food parcels and give them that?’ I asked.

The sergeant looked incredulous. ‘I couldn’t do that,’ he said. ‘Those are private parcels.’

‘I shouldn’t think that the people they belong to will mind,’ I said. ‘Just as long as they get something to eat.’

We found Franz Meyer seated in one of the larger offices where almost a hundred men were waiting patiently for something to happen. The sergeant called Meyer out and, still grumbling, went off to think about what I’d suggested about the parcels, while I spoke to my potential war-crimes witness in the comparative privacy of the corridor.

I told him that I worked for the War Crimes Bureau and why I was there. Meanwhile, outside the building, the women’s protest seemed to be getting louder.

‘Your wife and sisters-in-law are outside,’ I told him. ‘It’s them who put me up to this.’

‘Please tell them to go home,’ said Meyer. ‘It’s safer in here than out there, I think.’

‘I agree. But they’re not about to listen to me.’

Meyer grinned. ‘Yes, I can imagine.’

‘The sooner you tell me about what happened on the SS Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim, the sooner I can speak to my boss and see about getting you out of here, and the sooner we can get them all out of harm’s way.’ I paused. ‘That is if you’re prepared to give me a deposition.’

‘It’s my only chance of avoiding a concentration camp, I think.’

‘Or worse,’ I added, by way of extra incentive.

‘Well, that’s honest, I suppose.’ He shrugged.

‘I’ll take that as a yes, shall I?’

He nodded and we spent the next thirty minutes writing out his statement about what had happened off the coast of Norway in August 1941. When he’d signed it, I wagged my finger at him.

‘Coming here like this I’m sticking my neck out for you,’ I told him. ‘So you’d better not let me down. If I so much as get a whiff of you changing your story I’ll wash my hands of you. Got that?’

He nodded. ‘So why are you sticking your neck out?’

It was a good question and probably it deserved an answer, but I hardly wanted to go into how a friend of a friend had asked me to help, which is how these things usually got fixed in Germany; and I certainly didn’t want to mention how attractive I found his sister-in-law Klara, or that I was making up for some lost time when it came to helping Jews; and maybe a bit more than only lost time.

‘Let’s just say I don’t like the Tommies very much and leave it at that, shall we?’ I shook my head. ‘Besides, I’m not prom­ising anything. It’s up to my boss, Judge Goldsche. If he thinks your deposition can start an inquiry into a British war crime, he’s the one who’ll have to persuade the Foreign Office that this is worth a white book, not me.’

‘What’s a white book?’

‘An official publication that’s intended to present the German side of an incident that might amount to a violation of the laws of war. It’s the Bureau that does all the leg work, but it’s the Foreign Office that publishes the report.’

‘That sounds as if it might take a while.’

I shook my head. ‘Fortunately for you, the Bureau and the judge have a great deal of power. Even in Nazi Germany. If the judge buys your story we’ll have you home tomorrow.’

Excerpted from A Man Without Breath by Philip Kerr. Copyright © 2013 by Philip Kerr.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block
London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


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