The End: Hamburg 1943 / Edition 1

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Overview

"The novelist Hans Erich Nossack was forty-two when the Allied incendiary bombardments of German cities began, and he watched the destruction of Hamburg - the city where he was born and where he would later die - from across its Elbe River. He heard the whistle of the bombs and the singing of shrapnel; he watched his neighbors flee the firestorm; he wondered if his home - and his manuscripts - would survive the devastation. The End is his memoir of the annihilation of the city, written only three months after the bombing. A firsthand account of one of the most notorious events of World War II, The End is also a meditation on war and hope, history and its devastation." In the first English-language edition of The End, Nossack's text has been translated and introduced by Joel Agee and is accompanied by the photographs of Erich Andres.
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Editorial Reviews

Francia - Richard Overy
"This is a brief book of extraordinary power. . . . Nossack succeeds . . . in conveying a remarkable sense of what it is that bombing on such a genocidal scale does to those who experience it. . . . A classic of its kind."
Francia
"This is a brief book of extraordinary power. . . . Nossack succeeds . . . in conveying a remarkable sense of what it is that bombing on such a genocidal scale does to those who experience it. . . . A classic of its kind."

— Richard Overy

Library Journal
Many readers remember the firebombing of Dresden in World War II largely because of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Undoubtedly, the destruction of Hamburg, Germany, as the result of massive Allied bombing raids in July 1943 will become associated with this slim yet compelling memoir by German novelist Nossack (1901-77). His eyewitness account of the 1800-plane bombardment was written three months later and published in Germany in 1948. Nossack vividly depicts the human side of war, from the approaching terror to the city's final devastation. Translated by Agee (Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany), Nossack's prose is both direct and dreamlike. The text is complemented by a portfolio of 13 unforgettable scenes of destruction by Hamburg photographer Erich Andres. In his introduction, Agee portrays Nossack as an Orwell-like writer of conscience who was nearly forgotten after his death. This book deserves a place next to John Hersey's Hiroshima on the top shelf of modern war literature.-Thomas A. Karel, Franklin & Marshall Coll. Lib., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226595566
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2004
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 112
  • Product dimensions: 5.34 (w) x 8.24 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Hans Erich Nossack (1901–77) was a prolific writer. His books The D’Arthez Case, To the Unknown Hero, The Impossible Proof, Wait for November, and An Offering for the Dead have been translated into English. Joel Agee is the author of In the House of My Fear and Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press. In 2005, his translation of The End won the Modern Language Asssociation’s Lois Roth Award for a Translation of a Literary Work.

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Table of Contents

Foreword
Joel Agee

The End: Hamburg 1943 
Hans Erich Nossack

Erich Andres: Photographs
Scott Denham

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First Chapter

The End

Hamburg 1943
By Hans Erich Nossack

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-59556-0


Chapter One

I experienced the destruction of Hamburg as a spectator. I was spared the fate of playing a role in it. I don't know why. I can't even decide whether that was a privilege. I have talked to many hundreds of those who were there, men and women; what they have to tell, if they talk about it at all, is so unimaginably terrible that it is difficult to understand how they survived it. But they were given their role and their cue and had to act accordingly; and what they are able to report, heartwrenching though it may be in itself, is always just the part they were prompted to play. After all, most of them, as they ran out of their burning houses, didn't know that the whole city was burning. They thought it was just their street or, at most, their district, and perhaps that was what saved them.

For me the city went to ruin as a whole, and my danger consisted in being overpowered by seeing and knowing the entirety of its fate.

I feel that I have been given a mandate to render an account. Let no one ask me why I presume to speak of a mandate: I cannot answer that. I feel that my mouth would remain closed forever if I did not take care of this first. Also, I feel an urgency to set it down right away, even though only three months have passed. For reason will never be capable of comprehending as a reality or preserving in memory what happened there. I am afraid that, if I do not bear witness now, it will gradually fade like an evil dream.

On July 21, 1943, a Wednesday, I took the bus early in the morning to Horst near Maschen, a village in the heath with weekend colonies about fifteen kilometers due south of the outskirts of Hamburg. Misi had gone there the day before and had called me in the evening to tell me that she had finally succeeded in renting a small cabin for fourteen days; after how many weeks of fruitless trying and begging! And even now only because she had offered a quarter of a pound of coffee in return for the place. It was the first time in five years that I had left Hamburg for a vacation. There is no explanation for the fact that I didn't say no this time as well; for everything spoke against this vacation-if nothing else, my morbid disinclination to leave the city and my room and squander precious time, as I put it, before I had achieved something tangible.

Misi picked me up at the bus stop. She had on a red linen dress and a white head scarf. She was glad and also surprised that I had come. On the way to the cabin she tried quickly to describe everything to me so that I wouldn't be disappointed. We still had ten more minutes to walk. Since we had to bring our own food, my luggage was quite heavy, and I complained more than was necessary. We have often thought back on that; if we had been able to look just four days ahead I would have gladly carried three times the weight without grumbling. We walked this stretch, a wide and beautiful path through the heath, scored by many sandy wheel tracks carrying heavy loads back and forth several times a day for two months. Once even seven hundredweights of briquettes on a small handcart.

The cabin lay to the right of the path on the ridge of a hill, hidden away among birches, evergreen bushes, and a completely neglected vegetable garden. Only the pointed red roof jutted out above. To the north there was an open view onto a treeless moorland hollow, which in turn was gently closed off by another wave of hills. Behind that the landscape descended gradually toward the Elbe and Hamburg. On a clear day you could see the towers of the city.

The owner, a mason, had built the brick cabin with his own hands. You went in through a small glass porch, not without difficulty, as it was crammed full with various tools, and entered the kitchen from there. Next came a somewhat larger living room and, adjoining it, a tiny cell that seemed to have been built at a later date, just large enough for a bed. That was to be my bedroom. There was a stairway leading from the kitchen to the attic, and there stood a second bed for Misi. The rooms seemed even smaller than they actually were because they had been filled with completely unsuitable petit bourgeois furniture. Under the stairway was a storage bin inhabited by a small brown field mouse. Sometimes when we sat eating at the table, it would stick its little head through a crack and test the terrain with knowing eyes. But most important: in the kitchen was a trap door with an iron ring for a handle. If you lifted it, you could squeeze your way down into the cellar by means of a steep flight of stairs. It was cold there; it smelled of damp earth. The trap door and the cellar immediately reminded us of Barlach's play The Dead Day.

There was no light in the house; we had brought along what was left of a thick votive candle. Water had to be fetched from the neighbor's well, which was very far away. We gathered wood and pinecones in the forest every day. The stove drew very poorly and swallowed a great deal of fuel; it took an hour to get a pot of water to boil. All these inconveniences didn't disturb us then, it was all part of taking a vacation. Every time I made a fire I would run outside to watch with great pleasure the smoke billowing from my own chimney.

The first two days we had a headache, as usual, from the heath air. Then we got used to it. Except for when we went shopping in the village we hardly saw anyone. The nearest dwelling-a completely dilapidated cottage-wasn't very far off, however. The people who lived there had a bad reputation; the man was said to have spent time in jail for violating his daughter. All the children had been found guilty of prostitution and theft and had been sent to reform schools. After the catastrophe one of the daughters was allowed to go home for several days. You could hear her singing in the heath whenever she sensed a man was near. In the evening, the mother left the house to cut grass. On her way, she would sometimes stop at our garden gate for a moment. With the shrill voice of a madwoman she would then shout something in our direction that we could only half understand. Once she gave us a cucumber, we didn't know why. Hitched to a wooden cart, her big black dog waited and watched us closely. At night he often woke us with his barking. While the woman cut grass, she let her two young goats run free; one of them kept wandering off into our garden, where it would cry like a child. Once a buck made a frightening appearance. It was huge, like a prehistoric beast.

When our primitive household wasn't taking up our attention, we sat outside and read the adventure novels we had found in the cabin. We had not brought any books; that too was part of taking a vacation. We were dressed in our oldest clothes. Above all, we had left our good shoes at home, because the heather would ruin them. We greatly regretted this precaution later on.

We watched titmice hanging on the stems of withered poppies and opening their capsules. We contested another bird's claim to the raspberries and the last cherries, which it carried from the tree to the stone gatepost to pick out the seeds there; the post was all bloody from the juice. Hawks stood in the sky, and jays scolded in the squat, earthbound oaks. In the evening a cow's cries reached us from a distant pasture, accusing and helpless.

It was the first summer weather of the year, but with it came that heat that would contribute to the ruin of Hamburg, although later it was also of some help to the homeless refugees. The heath was just beginning to bloom. Little bunches of bellflowers stood by the sides of the roads. On that hollowed slope to the north of us, some plant whose name we did not know had taken seed among the heather. It blooms in rose-colored umbels and afterward bears a mane of white cotton; since it grows almost a meter high, its blossoms floated like a rosy mist above the hollow. All that was heavy lay hidden behind a lovely unreality.

We love the heath, somehow we belong there, perhaps we were born there ages ago. Others feel sick there and become melancholy. They cannot live without time; for the heath is without time. They don't want to know that we were born of a fairy tale and will become a fairy tale again.

We began to forget the war.-

I have described this idyll on the other side of the abyss so precisely because perhaps a way can be found leading back from there to the past we have lost.

Sometime late Saturday night or Sunday morning Misi woke me up. She was calling from upstairs: "Don't you hear it? Wouldn't you rather get up?" I had slept through the alarm; in the heath, it is only when the direction of the wind is favorable that you hear the sirens caterwauling in the far-off villages. Besides, over the years we had become used to staying in bed when the alarms sounded and not getting up until increased antiaircraft fire suggested that an actual attack was at hand; a habit that cost many people their lives.

I was about to give an irritated reply and turn over on my side when I heard it. I jumped out of bed and ran barefoot out of the house, into this sound that hovered like an oppressive weight between the clear constellations and the dark earth, not here and not there but everywhere in space; there was no escaping it.

In the northwest the hills on either side of the Elbe stood silhouetted against the narrow twilight of the departed day. The landscape cowered, holding its breath. Not far away stood a searchlight; commands were being shouted that immediately lost all connection with the earth and scattered in the void. Nervously the searchlight scanned the sky; sometimes it met with other shafts that were also swinging to and fro in wide arcs, so that for a moment they formed geometrical figures and tentlike structures, then quickly, as if startled, flew apart. It was as if this sound between heaven and earth were sucking up their light and driving them senseless. But the stars shone as they do in peacetime, straight through the invisible calamity.

One didn't dare to inhale for fear of breathing it in. It was the sound of eighteen hundred airplanes approaching Hamburg from the south at an unimaginable height. We had already experienced two hundred or even more air raids, among them some very heavy ones, but this was something completely new. And yet there was an immediate recognition: this was what everyone had been waiting for, what had hung for months like a shadow over everything we did, making us weary. It was the end. This sound was to last an hour and a half, and then again on three nights of the following week. It hung steadily in the air, and remained steady even when the much louder din of the defense intensified to a drumfire. Only at moments when individual squadrons descended for a strafing did it swell and graze the earth with its wings. And yet this terrible noise was so permeable that every other sound could be heard as well: not just the reports of the antiaircraft guns, the bursting of grenades, the howling roar of bombs, the singing of shrapnel, no, even a very soft rustling, no louder than that of a withered leaf dropping from branch to branch, and for which there was no explanation in the darkness.

The sound immediately drove me back into the house. It is possible that Misi called out to me from above, and that I answered something or other-I no longer remember. It wouldn't have been more than a few words; for this sound made a lie of all talk, it disarmed every word and pressed it to the ground. It was half an hour after midnight. The windows of the cabin couldn't be shaded; we got dressed in the dark and kept bumping into furniture. Then Misi came downstairs with the two suitcases. I lifted the trapdoor, squeezed through the opening and climbed down the steps until only my head was above ground level. Misi handed me the two suitcases and who knows what else, and I carried everything down. In the cellar I bumped into a shelf; a glass bowl that didn't belong to us fell down and broke. The sound was already in the cellar too, yes, it may have been even louder there, the walls vibrated from it; the ground carries sounds far in the heath. We lit the votive candle, which we had placed inside a small flowerpot. I believe Misi extinguished it soon, to preserve it. I ignored the plea in her question: Wouldn't you rather stay down here too? I left her sitting there, alone on a little footstool, wrapped in blankets. I climbed back up and closed the trapdoor above her. Or maybe Misi closed it herself, thinking she would be safer that way. But safe from what? And how separate we became by setting those thin boards between us! All this is senseless, and thinking about it fills one with infinite pity for all creatures, and one falls silent because the words threaten to become sobs. Even today we are still unable to listen to music, we have to stand up and go away. When I say music I mean Bach's Air or something like that. There is something consoling in it, but it is precisely this consolation that makes us feel naked and helpless, at the mercy of a force that wants to destroy us. During those nights I walked back and forth on the narrow strip between the vegetable garden and the wire fence that enclosed the plot; there the view was unobstructed toward the north. Sometimes I stumbled over a molehill; once I fell down because my foot had got caught in the raspberry bushes.

There wasn't much for the eye to see, and it was always the same. It's not the most important thing, either. Numerous flares hung in the air above Hamburg; they were popularly known as Christmas trees. Sometimes ten, sometimes just two or one, and if at some point there were none at all, you would begin to draw hope that perhaps it was over-until new ones were dropped. Many disintegrated as they sank, and it looked as if glowing drops of metal were dripping from the sky onto the cities. In the beginning, you could follow these flares until they extinguished themselves on the ground; later they vanished in a cloud of smoke that was lit red from below by the burning city. The cloud of smoke grew from minute to minute and gradually crept eastward. I paid no attention, as I had during previous raids, to the direction of the searchlights and the focal points of the antiaircraft fire. The tracers of small-caliber antiaircraft guns were just barely visible, and the heavy artillery shells were exploding everywhere. Only when the fire was right above me and the whistling of shrapnel and the smacking sound of its impact came close did I step under the roof of the porch. A few airplanes caught fire and fell like meteors into the dark. But this didn't arouse a hunter's interest the way it used to. Where they crashed, the landscape lit up for minutes. Once the silhouette of a distant windmill stood out against one such white incandescence. There was no feeling of cruel satisfaction at the defeat of an enemy.

Continues...


Excerpted from The End by Hans Erich Nossack Copyright © 2004 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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