Once, when Dieter was nine years old, he heard a siren—he swore he did. He remembered the siren the way he remembered many things that had happened in the past: the fourth day of Grade 3, for instance, when the teacher called on him to answer a question and he hadn’t been paying attention, but he blurted out an answer that happened to be correct.
You don’t forget something like that, but you also know that it is real, because it is notable and even extraordinary, though not something that defines one’s life, by any means.
So he was startled to learn, many years later, in 1961, that there never was a siren sounded on that day. He was sitting at his mother’s table, quietly smoking a cigarette and listening to a sshhh and bubbubb of conversation between his mother and his uncle Otto…When something was said, and he felt a small jerk from his plaintive reverie—a slight movement to his arm that caused ashes to fall from his cigarette on to the table.
He felt suddenly a bit jostled, and, quickly brushing the ashes away, said, “What do you mean?” The two elders stopped talking and looked at him. He clarified, “what did you mean, Uncle, that there was no siren?”
“I just meant it as an expression,” Otto said, looking at Dieter strangely. “I meant, it wasn’t as though there was a siren sounding the start of something. That we had to find these things out more gradually, you know. We didn’t understand the details, we couldn’t have foreseen the results.”
“But there was a siren,” Dieter said. “I heard it.” As soon as he said this, he began to question what he was saying. He tried to remember other details about that day. It was October 7th — that’s a date they knew from school. He was nine years old, they lived in the flat on Gotenstraße, in the British sector. His friend, Günter, who lived upstairs, had abruptly moved away with his family that autumn, and he remembered the weirdness of the silence above now that there were no footsteps overhead in the mornings—footsteps which had described each point in his neighbors’ morning routines. Frau Beck would walk back and forth between the kitchen and the boys’ bedroom, monitoring their progress in getting dressed, then monitoring the breakfast on the stove.
Earlier that autumn, Uncle Otto’s wife, Aunt Frieda, had also left abruptly, quietly scandalizing the family as she firmly and purposefully stated her intentions. She was a Communist, and while her family quietly urged her not to be quite so ardent, it was in the nature of Communism to feel its righteousness. And righteousness did not come in small pieces for many.
That said, Dieter did not remember much of significance of his young aunt. Being only nine years old at the time, and always a person too preoccupied with his own mind to inquire about someone else’s, there was nothing remarkable to him about Frieda. While his uncle had never married again, not much more of consequence happened as a result of Aunt Frieda’s leaving—nothing that was revealed to Dieter, anyway. The incident lived in the shadowy world of the adults’ concerns, and Dieter ceased to think of her. But then, about six years later, he saw her. His Aunt Frieda was in a photograph, in a type foundry in East Berlin.
He’d been smoking in the front of his high school one afternoon during a break between classes—at 15, he was just beginning to cultivate a certain look with a cigarette—he noticed several boys hovered around something, a book, attempting (in the most conspicuous manner) to be inconspicuous. Curious, he brought his new look and his cigarette and his nonchalance across the grass to try it out with them. But when he approached, he caught a glimpse of her face, suddenly quite familiar, and just below, her name: Frieda Schmidt.
Abandoning his cool, he reached roughly into the middle of the group and flipped the cover closed on the book to see its title, holding his thumb on the page with the photograph. The image was one of many in a book promoting the supposed efficiency of various Communist vocations. It was so undeniably her. She looked exactly the same, and it made sense that she would be working in a printing office setting type; a printing office was where she and Uncle Otto had met, when he was a young copy clerk. But now, amidst these boys he knew only peripherally, he sensed he had shone a spotlight on himself. There was no legitimate reason for them to have such a book, really, and Dieter’s impulsive behavior meant that suddenly no one really wanted possession of it. Softening his grasp and reclaiming his cool airs, he strolled away casually. If whistling would have made him seem more carefree, he would have done it—whistled something tuneless, hands in pockets, with an aimless expression to deflect any stares or curiosities he may have incited.
Dieter looked up. His mother and uncle were looking at him, waiting for him to explain. Dieter hesitated. His uncle’s face began to take on a familiar look of concern. Dieter did not know whether it was alright to proceed, and their expressions led him to doubt his own memory. If there was no siren, was there still Günter? Had the woman he’d seen in the book indeed been his aunt? As with the day he’d seen the photograph, he felt compelled to retreat from the scene; to distance himself from a memory he wasn’t sure he could trust. He’d never told his family about the photograph, and now he wondered if that was because he couldn’t be sure it had been she. Time had warped his confidence, and as with everything now, it seemed best to remain silent.