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Dance on the Volcano
My Fears and Challenges

A Young Anti-Nazi German
Woman in Hitler's Germany

A Memoir
Renata Zerner

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Berliners do not make friends easily with their neighbors. They greet each other as they pass on the stairway or stand together in the elevator, make polite conversation, and then disappear into their apartments. Now this had changed, because so much time was spent together in the shelters.

Some tenants stayed in the large room, while we young people went to the second smaller room to sit together and play cards. We knew each other well; we were the same age and some of us went to the same school. I was sixteen, tall and slender. Everybody said I looked like my father. I had his brown, deep-set, almond-shaped eyes and his straight nose. I wore my ash-blond hair in the popular pageboy style, just below the ears. I was quite fashion-conscious, but, of course, in the basement, during the air raids, I wore old comfortable clothes like everyone else.

The two rooms in the basement were equipped with old tables and chairs that had been sitting in the tenants’ attics, about to be discarded. Like the two shabby maroon colored armchairs with worn and faded upholstery in the larger room and a small rocking chair, the white paint chipped. Various straight chairs were placed around two kitchen tables, one for each room.

Someone had decorated the walls with large posters of grimacing Soviet soldiers. Why? I wondered, to frighten us? The situation was scary enough without a poster to help us think about being confronted by a Russian soldier.

In the smaller room stood two bunk beds in a dark corner with wool blankets rough as sandpaper. I sometimes stretched out on one of them, but I could never sleep. It was always dusty down there, my skin itched, and the only air supply came through the long corridor that led to the backyard. Usually the door to the entrance was closed, though not locked, so the air was dank and stale, smelling of mildew. Eventually more furniture would be added. The rooms were brightly lit by plain light bulbs that hung from the low ceiling. We must have been about twenty people. The janitor, his wife and daughter never came down.

One of the tenants, a dentist, was the air-raid warden. He took his job seriously – dressed in jodhpurs and boots – and carried a huge flashlight in his hand. Soon he became so officious that he caused resentment. If a tenant decided to stay in bed after the sirens had gone off, which a few did during the first air raids, he rang the doorbell and ordered him to come down immediately. Everyone objected to his bullying, and there were arguments. Finally, one tenant, a lawyer, was fed up, and in a dark corridor with no inconvenient witnesses, he slapped the warden briskly across the face and sharply rebuked him for his self-importance; after that, the warden kept a low profile. However, to everybody’s amusement, this minor incident ballooned into a full-fledged neighborhood rumor that a murder had been committed in our shelter.

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