Altona

by Lorain Urban

They decapitated Bruno Tesch. She pictured the yawn of his neck (a hollow “oh” of surprise), his head (pale, lying on its side, cheek pressed to the earth, emptying itself of thoughts), his body (tipped sideways, one arm tucked underneath, the other extended as if to gather a child to him). She thought of St. Saturnina, her severed head nestled in her arms, just like on the holy card. She saw the head-man, resting on his axe, canvassing the faces of his superiors. She imagined the brown shirts, faces as pale as Bruno’s, turning quickly to leave. Who, she wondered, picked up the head?

Elke had never thought much about Bruno Tesch before. He was part of the background of the narrow street on which they lived. Bruno was foreign: he was dark, he spoke with an accent, and he had an odd way of tying knots in most everything he came into contact with. Paper, tissue, blades of grass, napkins, banana peels. He would leave his twisted work behind: a figure eight of notebook paper on the counter of the news stand; a reef knot of flower stems on a park bench; a slip-knot of baling twine on the ground at the strassenbahn stop.

Elke recognized each type of knot. Her father, who worked on steamers docked in Altona’s harbor, carried a length of frayed, gray rope like worry beads, knotting and unknotting it, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes deliberately.

Bruno’s knots were more interesting to her than Bruno himself.

In her younger days, Elke would go to the park and settle in on a bench, knowing she would see one or another of her friends, who would then join her to gossip—all the while watching for boys worth their attention. Bruno was not one of them, but he was always there.

Then one afternoon, a swarm of brown shirts swept through the park, collecting the young like abandoned jetsam, and herding them to a “social.” Bruno disappeared along the way. But Elke followed, bewitched.

Elke had never been enthusiastic about anything, not because she was slow to warm to things, but because it simply took so much energy. As a child, she had stood on the perimeter, surveying others. It was never the other way around. But the swarm had transformed her; she became feverish. She sang the Horst-Wessel-Lied while she tidied her room:

“Clear the streets for the brown battalions, clear the streets for the storm division!”

She began wearing her hair in plaits. She lectured her parents on the characteristics of the ideal citizen of the Reich, on clues that someone is a Jew, on how to properly peel a potato. She embraced the approved exercise regimen. She ran, she practiced somersaults, hand-springs, and vaults, and joined the ranks in route marching, always ending up where they had begun. Elke, the phlegmatic, had become Elke, the wunderkind, a pride of the Aryan race.

Elke’s father puzzled over the new Elke, and pressed her about her new-found preoccupations, pressed her to such an extent that she grew suspicious. She began to take notes. She wrote: “My father disturbs me with his interrogations; he weaves knots of despair and sadness with his silly gray rope.” Adding: “Such activity is not useful to the Reich.”

She documented strangeness in the neighborhood. The “swings” with their homburgs, short skirts, and long hair stood in groups on the sidewalk, their language infected with foreign words and the syncopation of Negermusik. Louie Armstrong; Duke Ellington echoing from gramophones under bridges. She made lists of names, recorded dates and times, tried to summarize what was said, what was done.

Elke showed Herr Mueller her list of names and dates and times and activities, telling him she thought someone ought to know. Herr took her notes and studied them; he studied Elke. He told her what she had done was very important and that she should continue to be a good observer and report what she saw to him. He folded Elke’s notes and placed them in his pocket with a pat.

One night, her father left for New York—telling Elke and her mother he was not sure when or if he’d be back.

Elke’s mother found a job as a typist at a pesticide supplier. And Elke assumed responsibility for the household. She cleaned with vigor, she shopped carefully and frugally for food, she cooked with intensity—measuring precisely, chopping, stirring with the gravity of a chemist. She rehearsed for her role as a mother, the goal set for her by the Bund Deutscher Madel. Supple as leather, hard as steel.

The rhythms of life in Altona thrummed and clashed. Beatings outside taverns, beatings inside taverns, beatings most every place. Suspicion enfolded the city in its wings.

Elke sat on the stoop on a hot Sunday in July. The neighbourhood shops stood silent, hands behind their backs, watching. Her next door neighbour opened her door, glanced at Elke warily, and drew it nearly closed, allowing a view of the street through the crack.

A group of children knelt on the sidewalk, scratching designs with stones, rising from time to time to stretch and then shove one another away from each other’s artwork. One of them began to whistle. The others tried to join in. The tune trailed off.

Elke heard the thud of marching in the distance. The children on the sidewalk turned and froze like hares, then leapt up to run toward the sound to see the invisible parade. Elke followed. The marching stopped abruptly, and she heard cries and gun fire. Bruno—Bruno Tesch—rounded the corner and ran past her, never meeting her gaze. She slipped inside, and when her mother asked what was happening, she said she didn’t know. She rubbed her arm where Bruno had brushed past her.

The dead numbered eighteen. They said Bruno had been at the heart of the killings; he was taken into custody. She pictured him in a cell, making knots of his bed sheets, of his socks, of his strands of hair.

The world became grayer. Her mother became grayer. Her life became grayer. News traveled by whispers. One of the whisperers said Bruno was found guilty of murder—he was said to have killed four SA officers on the Sunday he had run past her in flight. The cinch of desolation tightened a notch.

And Bruno Tesch was beheaded.

Elke sat next to the window ledge in her room, imagining the scene. Had he been wearing a hood? Was he face down? Or would his executioner have wanted him to see the blade coming? Was he naked? Did he cry out? Was his cry cut short when the ax severed his wind pipe? Did the onlookers cheer? gasp? vomit? wince? Did he leave a knot of some type behind in the courthouse courtyard?

Bruno shadowed Elke. She saw his blood on the floor, as she scrubbed. She saw his shape as she approached his bench in the park. He sat in corners at taverns, leaned across the aisle of the strassenbahn, laid down footsteps echoing in the alley. His head appeared among the cabbages at the market, bobbed between her knees in the bathtub, and rolled along the street as the children played football.

Sometimes she spoke to him—mostly about the decapitation. She would ask him questions as she mulled it over: Did it hurt? Did he touch the blade with his fingers beforehand? Did he say good-bye to his mother? Did he beg? Did he spit? What did he look at as he waited for the blade?

Her mother would interrupt, “Elke, who are you talking to?” Elke didn’t answer.

Elke asked Herr Mueller if he had been at Bruno’s execution. Herr turned his head away abruptly and then faced her, lips working furiously to form some type of sound, any type of sound, with no success. He shook his head “no,” and placed a finger to his lips.

Elke began making knots, constantly, studiously—out of loose threads, rubber bands, curtain pulls, the edges of her skirt, the fingers of her gloves, clumps of her hair—at first clumsily, then growing to the facile speed of a ship’s chandler. Her fingers were raw, her knuckles swollen.

When she couldn’t sleep, Elke would steal out at night and walk past Bruno’s front door—certain she would catch a glimpse of him. A few times she did.

After dinner, her mother would listen to the radio. Elke would listen with her. She would sit very still, trying not to move, trying to breathe as quietly as possible, so she could hear Bruno’s messages, which Elke discovered were transmitted in the background of her mother’s favorite radio programs. Most of the time, Elke didn’t understand what Bruno meant. He would chant something that sounded like “Zyklon B, zyklon B, zyklon B.” Sometimes, he sounded as if he were moaning, moaning about pellets, moaning about Auschwitz, moaning about hydrogen cyanide.

Elke asked her mother if she heard the messages. Her mother shook her head, puzzled.

Bruno began communicating with her by leaving dead insects on the window ledge. Each had a particular meaning. A beetle meant Elke should go down to the harbor and write down the names of steamers docked there to keep track of ship traffic. A moth meant Elke must make a visit to the school—making sure no one saw her—and must bury a small token or two on the playground. A grasshopper told Elke to stock up on food and writing supplies. A dragonfly meant trouble.

Elke’s mother became a shade. She became so thin she nearly seemed transparent; she began to disintegrate. But each day without fail, Elke’s mother would take the strassenbahn to work to process orders for pesticides and prepare reiseberichts at the direction of her boss. She viewed with tired amusement her daughter’s interest in dead insects on their window sills.

From time to time, a letter would arrive from Elke’s father, telling them he would return for them. But once they were at war, the letters stopped.

Elke found a dead dragonfly on the sill. She threw it in the street.

That night, her mother came home a vapor. She settled in her kitchen chair, little more than a mist and began to eat and talk. Elke’s mother was usually too fatigued to talk. But tonight her mother began to confide—whether in Elke or in the familiar objects that made up their home, Elke wasn’t sure—about the details of her work.

“I report to Bruno Tesch, you realize,” said Elke’s mother.

Elke eyed her mother.

“Why do you look at me so, Elke,” her mother asked. “Dr. Tesch trusts me; he tells me things.”

“What things?” Elke wanted to know.

“Things about the special uses for our products.”

“What are you talking about, mother?”

“Have you ever heard of Zyklon B?” her mother asked.

“Yes,” Elke whispered, “He told me about it on the radio.”

“Who told you about Zyklon B? Who would tell you on the radio?”

“Bruno, Bruno Tesch,” said Elke.

Elke’s mother seem to fade further. “Bruno Tesch was on the radio?”

“He speaks to me sometimes,” whispered Elke.

“Dr. Tesch?”

“Bruno—Bruno Tesch who lived on our street.”

“Oh, that’s a different Bruno Tesch,” said Elke’s mother, “I thought that Bruno Tesch was dead.”

Elke said nothing.

“I had forgotten about him,” said her mother. “Dr. Bruno Tesch is the owner of Testa. I’m sure I told you this.”

Elke said nothing.

“He told me—now you promise you must not repeat this—he told me Zyklon B is helping the war effort in ways that you and I can only imagine. Think about that, Elke, I’m helping the war effort, not just by killing bugs, but by helping kill vermin of all sorts. That’s the way Dr. Tesch put it,” Elke’s mother trailed off.

Elke got up and cleared away their dishes. Her mother floated to her spot next to the radio.

Bruno Tesch. Dr. Bruno Tesch. Bruno Tesch. Dr. Bruno Tesch. Bruno Tesch. Elke lay on her bed, watching the shadows on the ceiling. One looked like a halyard knot, one looked like a claw. She turned her head toward the window, and watched a column of fire rise from the horizon as she felt herself being sucked into the inferno. Elke was certain the valkyries had made their choice. Bruno’s messages on her window sill would be incinerated.

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Lorain Urban lives in Cleveland, Ohio. The daughter of an inveterate pack rat, she found a packet of letters from pre-World War II German pen pals, her father had saved in a desk drawer after his death. Many of them were post-marked, “Altona,” and their contents captured a sense of Germany through the lens of adolescence. There were, in fact, two Bruno Teschs—each notorious in their own right.

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