In the poverty-stricken neighborhood where the Gruener family lived, tuberculosis was a well-established part of life. But in the fall of 1918, something new visited their Frankfurt community that remained until 1920. It began as a fever and sore throat. Headaches, body aches, cough and nose bleeds were common. Doctors advised their patients to take up to 30 grams of aspirin per day. For some, this regime appeared to work as their symptoms improved. Days would pass before this mysterious manifestation returned worse than ever. Aspirin could not help them. In that first October of the influenza outbreak, the Gruener family lost seven of their thirteen children. By the end of 1920, the virus had completed its sweep through Germany and 287 000 Germans had lost their lives.
“Schändlich!” the headline from the Frankfurter Zeitung met Werner’s eyes every morning upon awakening since June 1919. On the wall opposite, tacked there by his father, its coffee-stained appearance bellowed “Shameful!” It was a constant reminder of Article 231, the War Guilt Clause, of the Versailles Treaty. It was deemed a direct attack on Germany. Scrawled on the wall beside it his father had written “November Criminals!” A nickname given to the German politicians who had signed the armistice in 1918. His father’s inebriated screeching voice echoed through his head. “Germany was made to feel inferior, less a country. Why? Because Germany was blamed for the war! I spit on this Weimar Republic.”
Werner glanced around the one-bedroom, shoe-box-size apartment. The room was empty except for him, but he could still hear the screams of his siblings and his father’s stumbled step as he ascended to their lodging after the tavern closed. Beatings spared no one on payday.
He stretched his neck and glanced at the closed bedroom door. Payback had felt good! he mused. He rolled onto to his side and slowly, very carefully, sat up. Thud! The parallel hardware and serpentine springs gave way. “Ouch! Ouch!” A subdued scream was muffled between tightly compressed lips. His makeshift bed, which masqueraded as a couch during the day, had finally succumbed to the rambunctious trampoline antics of his brothers and sisters. He missed them but for no other reason than they deflected his father’s physical abuse occasionally away from him.
Barely breathing, more out of fear than the pain which had become his constant companion, Wernerlistened carefully. Except for the occasional snort, snoring beyond the closed bedroom door continued uninterrupted. He combed his fingers through his thick blonde hair and sighed with relief, then slid his lank frame up the inclined cushions until his feet hit the cold, plank floor. Pushing off the couch frame, he stood. Jagged pain stabbed from waist to shoulders. He gritted his teeth and concentrated on breathing while his tongue marked time digging at the freshly punched gap in his upper mouth. Tentatively, his fingers explored the swollen upper lip and cheek before he pulled away.
Boots in hand, he sat at the kitchen table and breathed deeply several times. He glanced around the claustrophobic apartment. Odor of alcohol hung heavy in the air. He laced up his last boot over a stockingless foot and tilted his look toward the bedroom door. A year had passed since his soused mother left with his five surviving siblings. He understood why she left. Why did she not take me? A queried daily ritual that scratched across his mind like a hungry wolf scrapping a tasty morsel from its prey. Neurons flexed their images. He knew his father suspected it was he who had turned him in to police. Jailed fifteen months. That was enough time for his mother to pack up and leave. But why did she not take me?! The crumbled separation order still lay on the floor where his father had discarded it during one of his drunken rages. A thin wedge of sunlight that slithered between unkempt curtains shone its reminder on it. Werner had learned from a local merchant, that his mother had relocated to Düsseldorf. Information kept tighter than a clam shell within him. Degrees of hate separated him from each parent, feelings sharply skewed in one direction more than the other.
His gaze focussed on the pantry; its scarcity punctuated by blue molds checkered on the outer edge of a half loaf of bread. His stomach rumbled as he put on his cap and jacket. He knew better than to check the ice box for food. Anger ate away at him. Once a good student, the extensive physical violence he suffered at the hands of his father forced him to run away many times. But he always returned to this hellish den. His hand touched his swollen lip and cheek. Not this time. And he knew he meant it. The streets had become his school. He had learned through petty crime how to clothe and feed himself. His home was the streets, and he navigated its nooks and crannies with finesse and purpose. Without looking back, he closed the door softly and descended to the street below.
Thick rolling clouds cast a pall over the late February morning rush while winds swept surroundings with a knife edged chill to its bite. Head down slightly, Werner snaked through the throng of people. His focus on shoes and the threads of the approaching gentry. A few carefully placed bumps later netted Werner four purloined wallets fat with Marks. He turned down an alley and after stuffing the money in his pocket discarded the empty wallets to a trashcan before exiting onto a large expansive courtyard with tenement buildings on its perimeter.
“Werner! ” Heimrich Schmid, the local dog catcher, waved him over. “What happened to you? Never mind, let me guess. Your old man again. By the way, happy birthday. Nineteen?” Werner nodded. “Nice gift he gave you,” he said, with a scrutinizing glance.
Reflexively, Werner raised his hand to his face then shrugged it off. “Shut your hole and give me a smoke?”
“Tut! Tut!” Heimrich replied with a smile, passing him a pack of Eckstein cigarettes. “Keep’em . I’ve got more,” he said, patting his jacket.
Werner had befriended Heimrich about six months ago, and often accompanied him on his rounds. The torture and killing of the animals caught was the mainstay of their routine.
Werner lit a cigarette and purged the smoke through his nostrils as he peered at the newspaper under Heimrich’s arm. “Anything of interest?” he asked, nodding toward the paper. He knew it would likely be the nationalist newspaper Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung.
Heimrich eyebrows lifted and fell with despair as he held up the paper. The headline read, General Strike in Fourth Week. Below it: Germans outraged by occupation of Ruhr by French and Belgium troops.
He passed it to Werner then came alongside of him and poked his finger at the page. “This here, it says it all.” His words spat out with venom. “Any great nation that has been driven to despair has always found the ways and means for its revenge.” He stared at Werner.
“We were stabbed in the back by those who stayed at home and a passive government.” Pensively, he gazed over Heimrich’s shoulder. “Beware of the dog, the beast has spikes.”
“You really must learn to take in your surroundings, Heimrich,” he chuckled with a hint of distain. On the poster behind you.” He flicked his forefinger to direct his attention. “Boy! Am I famished! Breakfast is on me.”
Heimrich peered at him with a tilt of the head. “Should I be alarmed? Your meagre wage from me and the amount your father steals leaves little to nothing for you.”
“You worry too much,” Werner replied. “Today’s my birthday! I’m celebrating!” Arm across Heimrich’s shoulders, he began to lead him away. His gaze fell on the poster again. “Can I stay the night with you? I’ve got an early start tomorrow.”
“An early start?”
“I’m travelling to Düsseldorf.”
“We’ll talk over breakfast,” Werner replied. “Do you mind if I keep this paper?”
“I’ve read all I needed to. But why?’
He winked. “Curiosity killed the cat, Heimrich. You’ll find out soon enough.”
Numbed by war and its aftermath, many Germans perceived predictability as an ill-wind of illusioned comfort wrapped in a blanket of false security. Only the monied people, the powerful, would have seen it differently. Soon the chaos in the streets would melt into something far worse.
Niflheim, ruled by Hel, next to the Shores of Corpses, where the giant snake Nidhogg resided, was about to cast its long dark shadow across Germany.
Two articles had caught Werner’s attention, one an opportunity, the other a necessity.