A Man Without Breath: A Bernie Gunther Novel

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9780143125136: A Man Without Breath: A Bernie Gunther Novel

The New York Times–bestselling author of Prague Fatale and Field Gray is “in a league with John le Carré” (The Washington Post)

Berlin, March 1943. A month has passed since Stalingrad and morale is low. Then Berlin learns of a Red massacre of Polish troops near Smolensk. In a rare instance of agreement, both the Wehrmacht and Propaganda Minister Goebbels want irrefutable evidence of this Russian atrocity. And so Bernie Gunther is dispatched. In Smolensk, Prussian aristocrats look down at the wise-cracking Berlin bull. But Bernie doesn’t care about fitting in. He only wants to uncover the identity of a savage killer—before becoming a victim himself.

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About the Author:

Philip Kerr is the New York Times–bestselling author of the Bernie Gunther series. He is also the author (as P. B. Kerr) of the young adult series Children of the Lamp. He lives in London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Also by Philip Kerr

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Epigraph

 

PART ONE

1: MONDAY, MARCH 1, 1943

2: WEDNESDAY, MARCH 3, 1943

3: FRIDAY, MARCH 5, 1943

4: MONDAY, MARCH 8, 1943

5: WEDNESDAY, MARCH 10, 1943

6: THURSDAY, MARCH 11, 1943

7: FRIDAY, MARCH 12, 1943

8: SATURDAY, MARCH 13, 1943

9: SUNDAY, MARCH 14, 1943

10: THURSDAY, MARCH 18, 1943

11: SUNDAY, MARCH 21, 1943

12: MONDAY, MARCH 22, 1943

PART TWO

1: FRIDAY, MARCH 26, 1943

2: SATURDAY, MARCH 27, 1943

3: MONDAY, MARCH 29, 1943

4: WEDNESDAY, MARCH 31, 1943

5: THURSDAY, APRIL 1, 1943

6: WEDNESDAY, APRIL 7, 1943

7: THURSDAY, APRIL 8, 1943

8: THURSDAY, APRIL 15, 1943

9: WEDNESDAY, APRIL 28, 1943

10: THURSDAY, APRIL 29, 1943

11: FRIDAY, APRIL 30, 1943

12: SATURDAY, MAY 1, 1943

13: SUNDAY, MAY 2, 1943

14: MONDAY, MAY 3, 1943

 

An excerpt from The Lady From Zabreb

1

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 just doing what they’re told,” 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 cozy 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 to 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 rumor 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 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 Thalerstrasse, 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 that 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 these 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 Lützowstrasse—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 on which I had been standing, 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 damned 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 humor 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 honorable 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 humor. 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 kilometers 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 behavior 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 Hotel Adlon; Siv played the piano in the orchestra at the Adlon.

I met her at the hotel on Sunday, February 28, which was the day after Berlin’s last Jews—some ten thousand people—had been arrested for deportation to ghettos in the east. Franz Meyer was a worker at the Osram electric lightbulb 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 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 Mischling—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 thirtieth, 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 ...

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