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Welcome to the Fire
By Marcelle Thiébaux
I'm having chocolate and schlag at the Mocha Efti Café near the Pariser Platz with my friend Cristel, when a visceral whump rocks my whole body. Cristel drops her spoon. "God, oh God," she chokes.
Through the lace-curtained windows we see the sky convulse in an apocalyptic burst. A blast-furnace sunset lights up the night like a drench of solar blood. The planet is cracking open.
A man rushes into the café shouting. "They're burning the Reichstag."
People sit stunned, quiet. Suddenly a babble breaks out, rising to screams and then an uproar. We're all jumping up. Forks and china clatter to the floor. Chairs tip over. A woman faints.
I feel strangely exhilarated. "We've got to see this," I say to Cristel.
"Bad idea," she cries. We both grab for our coats which luckily we haven't checked. "I need a phone, I'm calling my boss."
Right away, Cristel acts as if the fire is a threat to the national security. This isn't surprising since she's German and works at the Defense Ministry. I'm a typist at the American Embassy. A month ago I was lured from New York to Berlin because I needed a job and saw the chance to travel. It's early 1933 and Chancellor Hitler is supposedly a genius building the new Germany. Everybody at the Embassy says so.
Cristel makes a dash for the phones in the back. A long queue snakes outside the telephone cabin by the klo, which here is short for 'water closet.'
"Look at the line, it'll take you hours," I tell her.
"I'd better go home so my brother doesn't worry." Her bro is a crippled war veteran. "Let's run for a streetcar while we can."
"I'm not leaving." My throat trembles with excitement as if I've swallowed electricity. "I want to see the fire."
"You don't know what you're talking about, Jane!" Her panicky eyes are pale as glue, her wiry red hair springing up like Raggedy Ann's. She knocks over her cup in her excitement.
"Let's just get out of here." I dig in my purse for some marks and drop them by my saucer. We push through the glass door. Fiery explosions rack the red sky. Noise and chaos in the streets. Sirens wail. Police vans pull up and the uniforms climb out in force with truncheons, beating and collaring anyone they can get at.
Cristel tugs at me. "Don't be an idiot American, Jane," she shrieks. "You're in the wrong place you'll be arrested, no questions asked. That's how they do it. Shoot first, send a wreath later."
"I'm staying." I gawk at the flames galloping like red stallions out of a smoke-filled barn. Frantic crowds squash against us. "Cristel," I call to her. Thickets of wool coats deaden my voice and I lose her for good.
Without her I'm elated. This is history and I'm not going to miss it. I push toward the burning building, elbowing the mobs. Out of breath, I make my way through mounded dirty snow to an open space where lots of folk stand around in clumps, roasting their upturned faces, hypnotized. The building is a molten volcano billowing smoke, ash and sparks into the night sky. Flames shoot from the main dome and the four small cupolas. Still intact, the curved iron frameworks glow incandescent.
Famished, the fire sinks its teeth in, eats up the tinder-dry paneling in the plenary sessions hall, the upholstery and ancient leather sofas, the wormy tapestries, the podiums, benches, banisters. historic paintings and archives of parchment, not to mention table linens and Turkish towels stacked in dining halls and bathrooms.
I scramble over a bloated firehose to get closer to the blaze, A fireman stalks after me with his pike, thundering at me to stop. "Piss off!" Verpiss dich! In German it sounds quite funny,
Then I spot the Americans, reporters I know from the Embassy press room. All talking at once, they're jubilant over this real-life disaster movie. Some try sneaking past the police cordons, climbing up the stone bulwarks for a look inside the inferno. They're from The New York Times and The Chicago Sun, the United Press, the Associated Press. I feel good seeing them.
"Hello, everybody." I say in my most winning Embassy manner. I latch onto Steve Rex, a photo-journalist for the Hearst Service. I really like Steve, both of us from New York. He's a Bronx College dropout with a gangly grace and a rumpled, intellectual air.
I yell, "Steve, am I ever glad to see you! What's this is all about?"
He stares at me through glinty tortoise-rimmed lenses, blank and distracted as if he doesn't remember me.
"It's Jane." I shout above the din.
"I can't talk to you, Jane." He and the newsmen abruptly turn from me in a body. Crestfallen, I see why. The big attraction has arrived, Chancellor Hitler. The newsmen all flock to him.
"Sorry, Jane, I've got to see the man," says Steve. "Any minute he'll be Man of the Year. Time Magazine plans to put him on the cover."
Hitler swoops down with his cronies and bodyguards, and the American newsmen crowd around him, fawning, photographing like fans around a movie star, Ginger Rogers stepping off the 20th Century Limited. The Americans thirst for any word, any shred of copy from the führer they can radio back home. Steve vanishes into the thick of the journalists.
Hitler flaps past them like a big-winged bird, creating a breeze in his cheap, dirty, buzzardy trench-coat that looks like he sleeps in it. People say he carries moldering food in those baggy pockets to eat in his spare time. In fact, there he goes, gnawing a morsel of gristle as he rushes by in his slouchy big-brimmed poet's hat that reminds me he used to be a sidewalk artist, a failed seller of his picture postcards.
Now in his poet's hat, he clambers up on one of the Reichstag's stone parapets that forms a balcony above the fire. He peers into the roiling firestorm, and there he finds his great inspiration, down there in the pit of hell.
Turning to the hordes, he sings his aria. The blaze crackles behind him, blackly silhouetting him in his sloppy poet-Goethe hat. He hammers and trounces the air. His raw frenzied voice grates like iron scraping bone. "Whoever stands in our path shall be chopped down!" What he bellows is so preposterous I don't believe him, singing bad opera from the ring of flames like some crazy moth-eaten Wotan posing on Valhalla.
I reach my apartment building past midnight. Jumping from the trolley near Akazien Strasse I run into a tense, eager crowd clustered under the glare of the streetlamps. Over a dozen brown-uniformed stormtroopers are guarding my building, rifle butts planted upright on the cobblestones.
My studio apartment is upstairs, over the lingerie shop. Somehow they're looting the whole house, my house. Carrying out boxes of silk stockings from the shop. I hear people in the crowd say they're looking for communists, since the communists started the Reichstag fire. Meanwhile, they're helping themselves to spoils that appeal to them.
The big front door to the vestibule kicks open and a stormtrooper walks out with a trophy. My typewriter.
Apart from the visored kepi with the chinstrap, and the jackboots laced to the knee, this trooper stealing from me could have been one of the boys I knew back in Thorne River High. Clear eyes blue as Windex. Teenage pimples. Lips brutally wet and red. Not a cute boy. A boy so un-cute he would never have got me to dance with him at the Sadie Hawkins sock hop.
I start to scream, "That belongs to me!" I start to rush forward, determined to wrench it from his chapped knuckles. But I stop the impulse. This can't be happening to me, I'm an American. I'll go to the police and tell them to get my typewriter back. For the first time I understand fear.
I watch the trooper making off with my Baby-Rem Portable Remington that my parents bought for my graduation to take with me to my new job, to keep a diary of my visit to Berlin, to Europe. My dad paid $74 for it at Sears Roebuck.
I will never see it again, and within seven years we are all at war. I'm back home. My buddy Steve is fighting. I miss him and we write, long letters.