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An Age Of Oppression
By André Malraux, Roberta A. E. Newnham
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2003 Roberta A. E. Newnham
All rights reserved.
Kassner was shoved into the guardroom just as a prisoner they were interrogating was finishing a sentence, but his words were drowned out by the usual police-station racket of rustling papers and clumping boots. Facing him on the other side of the table was a typical Hitlerite official: with the familiar square-jowled, angular face and virtually shaven head, his hair closely cropped from the ears up, and with short, blond tufts sticking up stiffly from his skull.
"... Party orders!".
"What post did you hold in the illegal Communist party?"
"I don't know anything about any illegal party. Until January 1933 my duties in the German party were of a purely technical nature."
The Communist shifted slightly, almost turning his back on Kassner, and the latter had to listen closely to their voices to be able to tell who was talking. The prisoner was speaking in a low, impersonal voice, as if he were deliberately using such a tone to show that it was not he, himself, who was answering, but someone else who was being forced to reply under duress and was not responsible for his actions. The interrogator's voice sounded detached, even younger than his youthful looks suggested. As he listened, Kassner waited for something in the voice and words which would gradually give him an insight into the character of this young man who was to be responsible for his fate.
The latter was looking at the prisoner, who was looking into space.
"You've been to Russia."
"As a technician: I was working for the Electrozavod."
"We'll look into that. What post did you hold in the German Volga Republic?"
"Never been to any such Republic. Nor to the Volga."
"What cell did you belong to in Berlin?"
"We'll see. Who was your leader?"
The Communist's back was completely turned towards him now, and Kassner listened for his reply.
"I knew it. I want his surname! Are you making fun of me, arse-hole?"
"We only ever knew our comrades by their first names. It was always like that, whoever it was."
"I only ever saw him at the cell."
"All right. Well, I'm going to put you in one of ours: you'll see how that will improve your memory. How long were you at Moabit?"
"One hundred and eighty days after your arrest ...?"
Kassner finally began thinking about his own arrest. The SAhad taken him off in a bus to begin with, (which, because its passengers were all Nazis, seemed even more stifling than a prison van). One of the businesses he was supposed to be running was a small factory which made adjustable airscrews, which meant that, from time to time, he was officially permitted to use a plane. The latter was lying dormant now, out there in its hangar and, for the whole journey, it had been the only thing Kassner could think about. On one of the street corners some men were singing while they were repainting an ironmonger's shop-front — its gaudy colours reminded him of the Red Square ... Until then, everything had seemed unreal to him, more like a ritual than a dream.
"One hundred and eighty ..." the interrogator resumed. "Well, well ... So who's been sleeping with your wife all this time?" Had the prisoner given any hint that the blow had struck home, while the other man had been staring at him so intently? Kassner was intensely aware of the prisoner's unwilling presence, stuck there physically captive, yet striving hard to remain mentally detached from what was happening. The interrogator softened his tone, less aggressive now.
"Who's sleeping with your wife then?" he repeated.
Kassner put himself in the Communist's shoes, feeling somehow like a spectator and a tragic actor at one and the same time and could not think straight any more.
"I'm not married," the prisoner replied, shifting sideways again.
"That doesn't mean you can't have a woman ...," the Nazi finally replied, in the same indifferent tone of voice.
The two men stared at one another with weary disgust.
The official jerked his chin: two SA men led the prisoner away, then pushed Kassner towards the table. The Nazi looked at him, opened a dossier and took out a photo.
Like anyone who has ever needed to conceal their identity from time to time, every single feature of his own horsy elongated face, with its square-set jaws, was permanently imprinted on Kassner's memory. Which photo was the Hitlerite scrutinising? Kassner could see it upside-down from where he was. Not much danger there: he'd had a short back and sides at the time it had been taken and the expression on that narrow, bony mask-like face, with its pointed ears, was passably different from the way he looked now, with his longish brown hair framing a haggard, thoroughbred face, giving him a vaguely romantic look. The photo had been taken when he'd had his mouth tightly closed; he knew that the minute he smiled his long teeth were exposed right down to the gums. Even when he was just biting his lower lip those teeth were still very obvious. He did so now — but only slightly, because one of his molars was hurting him, — and dropped his gaze towards the table: usually his very large eyes appeared to be looking slightly more upwards than is natural and in order to conceal the white line which normally showed between his irises and lower lids he only needed to appear to be looking downwards.
Silently, the Nazi stared first at the photo then at the face, in turn. Kassner knew that if he were recognised, he would be killed, whether or not he was officially condemned to death.
"Kassner," said the Nazi.
Every single clerk and SA man looked up suddenly.
It was the first time Kassner had witnessed recognition of his legend written on enemy faces.
"I'm well-known at my legation. Even the dumbest conspirator wouldn't ask a policeman for a light only to walk straight into a police ambush."
He'd been with some comrades in a small antique shop belonging to one of them, half an hour before going to a dentist's appointment, when a member of the illegal organisation had come in, hung his overcoat above a pile of Dalmatian vestments, icons, chasubles and orthodox bric-à-brac and sat down, saying: "There's a police-ambush at Wolf's. They're going to take people in for questioning." Wolf had stood up. "I've got a list of names in the back of my watch-case."
They'd been told never to keep any names at home.
"You'll be arrested at the entrance. Where's the watch?" "In the wardrobe, in the pocket of my black waistcoat. But it's ..." "Don't argue: the list! Give me the keys." When he'd arrived there Kassner had met two SA men in the corridor: it hadn't exactly been an ambush. He'd stopped in front of them and tried to light the cigarette he'd already got between his lips with an empty lighter. He'd asked the SA men for a light and gone upstairs. While he was ringing the doorbell he'd leant against the door to hide his hand which was pushing the key into the keyhole, gone in, closed the door behind him, opened the wardrobe, taken out the watch, eaten the list, put the watch back and closed the wardrobe door again. No sound of footsteps on the stairs. He knew he'd be arrested when he went downstairs. There was nowhere to hide the key in the room and opening the window to throw it out would have been absolutely stupid. He'd slid the key into the pocket of one of the pairs of trousers hanging in the wardrobe: Wolf could have had several keys.
He'd had to wait for five minutes, to make it seem as if he'd come to see Wolf and had not found him at home. The taste of the paper he was chewing with some discomfort (was it a nerve or a bad tooth? If only all this could have happened after the dentist's!) reminded him of the smell of papier-mâché carnival masks. Even if all went well, it was going to be difficult to get out of this place: false identity-papers are only worth so much ... And the prospect of Nazi prisons did not exactly fill him with enthusiasm. Who really knows just how much they can endure? How many times had he been told that, even by trying to obtain one extra ration, a prisoner will end up expending the same amount of energy as what would be spent on setting up an illegal organisation covering an entire district? He'd thrown away his cigarette: the taste of the tobacco combined with the chewed paper made him feel sick. He'd finally gone out and they had arrested him on the landing.
"You will find more than fifteen letters at my factory — evidence of the correspondence between Mr Wolf and ourselves, as you may see for yourselves," said Kassner. "All the stock has been delivered."
The illegal organisation had taken all possible precautions.
His Pilsen accent was not bad, but the real Kassner was from Munich. While he had been working as a militant Kassner had developed an almost unconscious habit of using the rhetorical phrase "as you may see" quite frequently. He found it extremely repugnant using such a deferential expression when talking to Nazis, and — although it was virtually useless — he had had to watch himself and speak more slowly. Both an interrogator and the man he is interrogating know just how difficult it is to prove that a meticulously established false identity is in fact a fake. The Nazi flicked through the dossier, looked up, then started flicking through it again.
Photo, thought Kassner, description. But what are all those papers? The SA man had confirmed that Kassner had asked him for a light. But how had he got in? They hadn't found the key on him, so that was all right, and they'd heard him ringing the doorbell; but if they'd known that the door was unlocked ...
What picture of his life did these bits of paper conjure up? A miner's son; a University student on a grant and organiser of one of the workers' theatres; he had been imprisoned by the Russians, then gone over to the partisans and then joined the Red Army; he had been a party delegate in China and Mongolia; he was a writer who had returned to Germany in 1932 to organise the Rühr strikes against Papen's decree, he ran the illegal information service, was a former vice-president of the "Red Relief" ... Clearly enough to get him executed, but consistent with someone who had a rather haughty expression.
"It's one thing getting into the Legation with false papers but quite another going out in the street with them on you," observed the Nazi.
But Kassner sensed him hesitate. Everyone around him hesitated: people expect somebody who has led a fantastically romantic life to at least look the part. It seemed that Kassner, the columnist who had chronicled the Siberian Civil War, who was blessed with an extremely impressive physique enhanced by his contacts with the theatre, and with a raw genius for expressing virile emotion, ought to bear visible signs of all the dramas he had witnessed and described, because his life had become merged in people's memories with the messy Siberian epic. Besides, it was a well-known fact that he had been in Germany since Hitler's triumph, and was held in great affection by all those people who had been defeated, who saw him as both their comrade-in-arms (his job was important, but not crucially so), and the future historian of their time of overwhelming despair. Even his enemies believed that he had become involved in the events he had witnessed, like the traveller who returns home visibly marked by his experiences in the countries he has journeyed through, or like the passer-by who has narrowly escaped being caught up in a catastrophe. Everyone expected to see a face that bore visible signs of the Siberian experience; not so long ago they would probably have seen those ravaged features in the photos of him published in the newspapers, where it would have been easy to touch them up like that. It was not quite so easy to modify the features of a living person in such a way. Almost to a man, those who were hesitating now felt it was ridiculous that this man should have been taken for Kassner. The interrogator left the room, came back, closed his dossier again and made the same sign with his chin as he had at the end of the previous cross-examination. Two SA men pushed Kassner towards the door and, manhandling and thumping him (although without really exceeding the limits of conventional military brutality) propelled him towards the prison.
If they'd been going to finish me off right away, they'd have taken me to the guardhouse, thought Kassner.
But they weren't going to: corridors, and more corridors. Finally he was locked up in a rather large, dark hole.
A quarter of an hour later, the darkness gradually receded into the grey-painted walls which began to emerge from the gloom. Kassner roamed aimlessly around his cell, his mind a blank. Realising this, he pulled himself together and stopped. The wall was dirtier nearer the door and lower down, near the floor. Was it like that because other people had roamed around here, as he was doing now? There was no sign of dust anywhere though. The cell looked clean in a Germanic way — hygienically clean. Was it dampness? He realised that by now he was mechanically going through a list of questions: while his mind, like his stupid body, was roaming around restlessly (I must be looking more and more like a horse), his gaze had frozen, his eyes registering the fact quicker than his brain: low down, near its base, the wall was covered with inscriptions. His mind was latching on to anything within its grasp, avoiding having to think about his imprisonment. What could he think about? Now he'd been recognised, all he needed to know was whether they would turn up soon and finish him off, or torture him or just beat him up; might as well think about the graffiti on the wall.
Several bits were only half-visible. Some were coded. (If I'm going to stay here, I'll work out the code). Others were much clearer. Very slowly this time, he began to roam about the cell again, focusing on the more obvious, distinct ones and as he approached them he made out: I don't want ... The rest was obliterated. Another one: Dying in the street would have been less terrible than dying here. Several times since he had been captured, Kassner had told himself that having a real fight on their hands would have helped them win over the majority of the workers who were not on their side; but he knew how his romantic imagination so easily ran away with him and was extremely wary of this tendency of his. "We can never win if we only have the progressives on our side," ran an obsessively memorable sentence of Lenin's. Ever since he had returned to Germany, Kassner had felt instinctively that it was impossible to unite all the workers in a single body without infiltrating the Catholic, reformist unions, and they had not been able to do enough effective work among the unions to persuade the other workers to become involved in the struggle: the revolutionary workers had been the first to be sacked and had become artisans, with the result that barely one tenth of the party was carrying on the campaign inside the large factories. During the previous year, there had been fewer strikes in Germany than in France, England or the United States ... Kassner had been working on organising the Red unions: they had got more than three hundred thousand members by the end of the year ... but that was still not enough.
Now that Hitler was in power, all the various revolutionary factions within the factories needed to pull together and form one single union which would militate in a more focused manner. It would then pull in one direction only, targeting the campaign into reacting immediately to more rapidly reported daily events and, being in closer contact with the core organisations, it would then be able to implement instructions from base much more effectively. As a result, Kassner had been working at the information service centre since January; this was one of the most risky jobs and most of the more legible inscriptions — the most recent ones — had almost certainly been scratched on that wall by some of its members. He bent towards another one: My hair is still black, and, as if his choice of message had been dictated by some acute instinct of his, more accurate than his eyes even, his ears picked up the distinct sound of footsteps. Were there many of them?
The sounds were all jumbled up: there must have been three, four, at least five, maybe six of them out there.
Six SA guards could only be coming along here — a whole group of them, at this hour — to beat somebody up.
The door of a distant cell was opened then closed again, the woolly silence once more engulfing the commotion caused by the clumping boots.
Excerpted from An Age Of Oppression by André Malraux, Roberta A. E. Newnham. Copyright © 2003 Roberta A. E. Newnham. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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