(This is a short extract from chapter 6 of my novel “Geli Hitler,” available here)
In the event, Maier found a seat in one of the many trains connecting Stettin to Berlin, but there were no places left in the overnight express to Munich. He dragged himself and his suitcase to a small, somewhat decent pension just outside Berlin’s central station, where he found himself sharing a first-floor room with a tall, middle-aged man who slept in tender embrace with a violin case. Whatever there was inside the case, Maier preferred not to find out.
The night was long. The man with the case snored. Soon after midnight, there was a clatter in the street, just a few feet away from Maier’s bed. Shoes hurried down the pavement, whistles were exchanged, then some incoherent shouting. It might have been kids running around for fun; if not for the fact that the din returned soon thereafter, with the added sound of fight: a whine, a call, a high-pitched cry for help. Then more running around.
Maier rose. He put some clothes on and grabbed his gun. The other man had stopped snoring but preferred not to look at Maier. At the pension’s entrance—not really a reception, more like a wide corridor with a small room to one side, where the place’s business was conducted—a thin, young man was standing, uncertain of what to do. Maier didn’t know who the man was, but he supposed he was some kind of night-watchman.
“What’s that noise out there?” Maier asked, in a low voice.
“It was the same thing last night,” the young man said. “I think it’s some bums, they are probably drunk. They fight.”
He didn’t seem all that willing to get out to check his facts on the ground.
“I’m a policeman,” Maier said. ”I’ll go have a look.”
The young man turned to him.
“People say the bums steal from poor people at the station. They close down the station every night, so some people with trains departing the next morning try to save some money and spend the night by the main gate. People from the provinces. The bums go after them.”
“What about the local police?”
The young man shrugged. His elbows were pointy, his arms little more than bones and skin. He was no fighter, that much was clear.
Maier stepped out, gun in hand. It was a cold night, too cold, he imagined, to find many thrifty provincial travelers huddled by the station. Gray mist hung from the working lamplights—around half of them. Maier wondered: in Italy, Mussolini had risen to power on the promise of making trains run on time; in Germany, despite the war and the inflation and the economic crisis that had come last trains still ran in time—so perhaps Hitler might have to win the election on the promise of making lamplights work.
Round the corner, the dark mass of the station beckoned. Movement to the right, movement to the left: bums hiding in the shadows, possibly. That walk to the station, Maier understood, was the kind of thing he should never tell his wife about: why the hell was he running the risk of walking in the dark in a strange city, surrounded by people who might dislike him extremely.
Then again, he was the police. He noticed a group of people on benches not far from the main gate. Ten perhaps, old and young, one boy and one girl; surrounded by suitcases, some of them laying together, as a sort of palisade against the wild Indians in the mist. They stiffened at the sight of Maier.
“I’m a policeman,” he said, putting his gun away.
“It was about time,” the oldest man, one in his seventies wearing a heavy overcoat, said.
“I’d like to know if you have anything to report,” Maier said, unwilling to object.
“Just some crazy people running around,” said the old man, now firmly established as spokesman. “Two of them came to ask for money. Bums. We didn’t give them any. Are they dangerous?”
The man had a defiance about him, cold dark eyes, a long face; and a slight foreign accent. The women, the children, the men in the group: they all were dark-haired, and their clothes and guarded glances had a vague Eastern air about them. Maier found himself looking for all-so-slightly hooked noses, but then looked away. He didn’t know what the purpose of it all was: they could be dark-haired Germans, or Hungarians or God knows what; would it make any difference if they were Jews?
“I’ll stay with you for a while, if you don’t mind,” Maier said.
“On the contrary,” the old man said.
Since Maier was betraying his Jewish wife, and might possibly even leave her, it was best for justice in the universe if the people he was protecting at the station were Jews, a voice inside Maier suggested. He pondered the issue for some time, watching the mist grow more quiet as the minutes passed; he was unable to reach any conclusion but, as always, the very act of considering his ethics made him feel virtuous and true.