Fascinating piece by Johannes Groschupf in Die Zeit on the historical background of Hans Fallada's 1947 novel Jeder stirbt für sich allein, translated into English as Alone in Berlin (read my review of the German original here). Falladas last novel, published just months before his death, became a surprise international bestseller last year in France, the UK, and in Israel, and a new unexpurgated edition is now being published by Aufbau Verlag in Berlin.
Fallada's suspenseful novel deals with an act of resistance against Nazi terrof by a middle-age couple in wartime Berlin. Fallada named his couple Otto and Anna Quangel, but the novel is based on the actual Gestapo file on Otto und Elise Hampel. The Hampels were turned into the police by a neighbor and were executed in Plötzensee in 1943.
Groschupf visits the neighborhood in Wedding where the Hampels lived and finds a few survivors who vividly recall the couple. The apartment building, so vividly described by Fallada, no longer exists:
"Im November 1943 traf eine Luftmine das Haus", fährt Frau Quass fort. "Es gab 96 Tote. Das Haus brannte noch wochenlang. Zu den Opfern gehörte auch die Hauswartsfamilie. Es war das einzige Haus der Gegend, das bombardiert worden ist, und es gab sofort das Gerücht, Frau Hampel hätte das Haus verflucht, deshalb ist es getroffen worden. Jahrelang lag der Schuttberg noch da. Als dann der Neubau begann und ein Arbeiter vom Gerüst fiel, wurde gleich wieder von dem Fluch gesprochen." Vergessen hat Frau Quass ihre ehemaligen Nachbarn nie. "Am 8. April denke ich immer an Hampels, da sind sie nämlich gestorben."
("In November 1943 the building was hit by a bomb," Frau Quass continued. There were 96 fatalities. The building burned for weeks. The custodian's family was among the victims. It was the only building in the area that was bomb, and right away people started saying that that Frau Hampel had cursed the building, and that was why it was bombed. The rubble stood there for years. When a new structure was being constructed a worker fell from the scaffolding and again people spoke about the curse." Frau Quass never forgot her neighbors. "I always remember the Hampels on April 8, since that is when they died.")
Fallada's Jeder stirbt für sich allein is a work of fiction, though it is based on a true story. It turns out that the most gripping section of the novel, the trial of Otto and Anna Quangel - a total travesty of justice - was more fiction than fact. While the Quangels are defiant to the end, the real-life Hampels were far less heroic, blaming each other for the "treasonous" activities in a futile effort to avoid the guillotine.
And Groschupf provides another detail: Fallada initially balked at writing the novel since he himself had not openly resisted the Nazis: he felt unworthy as a writer. Fortunately, Fallada overcame these scruples and gave us the best novel about everyday life in Berlin under Nazi rule.