Harald was alarmed to see a cluster of fellow college students standing outside the old bookstore. It was thirty minutes until curfew, and to see four young men standing in the cold, facing each other, their breath puffing smoke in the frigid air, looked to him fairly suspicious. He locked wary eyes with Sigi from ten meters away, nodded slightly, then kept walking past them.
The small street one block from the Wall had a smattering of people, most of them customers leaving stores or merchants locking up their shops. One old man and woman across the cobblestone street struggled with the iron grate they pulled over the entrance, and Harald hurried his step and helped them close the collapsible metal curtain.
“Vielen dank,” the old man said, and Harald nodded. He watched the two of them scurry down the lane toward home and then turned back toward his friends. They had realized their mistake, and had either scattered or gone inside. In any case, Freedom University was no longer represented in the streets of East Berlin.
What was he doing? He thought to himself. His mother would have turned white—were she still alive—and he knew what Paps would say. Never stick your neck out was his motto, a carry-over from his time in the U.S. Army. He thought of his mother, all she had suffered through the war years here in Berlin, her trauma at the hands of the Russians, starvation, disease, humiliation. He knew nothing of these things. Now it was his time to do something for those who still suffered. Especially for Elise.
“This is for you, Mom,” he muttered to himself, knowing as he said it that his concerns were more for a beautiful 17-year-old girl than for a dead mother. He let out a frosty sigh, then looked down and strode across the darkening street into the bookstore.
Herr Frauschein, the proprietor, was nowhere to be seen, but his son Hans was standing in the back of the bookstore between the aisles. He waved Harald to come join them and held the trap door open as Harald followed the old wooden stairs down into the basement. Inside the small space, Harald couldn’t feel the cold, which he was surprised at. The old basement was filled with boxes, stacks of papers, and an old overstuffed chair that smelled faintly of dust, old books and cat piss.
“This basement is very sturdy,” Hans told the other four. “It survived through countless bombings by the Allies, and my parents lived down here for the last two months while the Russians invaded. While they were down here, my Pap got afraid that they might get trapped in the rubble, so he started a tunnel for such an emergency. He saved us a lot of work.”
Hans and Sigi pulled back an old standing bookcase to reveal a hole in the concrete wall of the basement. Hans held up a kerosene lamp and Sigi chuckled as they all bent to look down the hole. It was about 15 inches square and traveled straight as far as Harald could see until the tunnel faded into blackness.
“We really were fortunate,” Sigi said. “He decided to dig west, toward the Wall.”
“Well, the Russians were coming from the east, so I think it was an unconscious decision on his part.”
“How far does it go?”
“To tell you the truth, I have never gone down it,” Hans said. “I am a little afraid of small places. And Papi always warned me that the soil is pretty soft with a lot of ash from the burned buildings. He was always concerned about it falling in on me.”
“Well, it may not be safe, but it will sure make the work a lot faster.”
Harald’s heart beat faster as he looked down the tunnel. It seemed to stretch forever. He had known that their escape attempt would involve a tunnel, but the reality of being underground, being surrounded by so much soft dirt, dirt that could collapse on him and smother him, dirt and ash that could fill his nose and mouth and eyes—. He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself.
“Who goes first?” Hans said.
“Draw straws?” Sigi asked.
The tunnel seems alive, the entrance yawning toward him as if it waited to swallow him. He gulped. If I’m going to do this….
“I’ll go,” Harald blurted. As the others stared at him, he reached for the small trenching tool, ducked his head, and climbed into the small opening in the wall.
“Wait,” said Sigi, grabbing his shoulder. Half in the entrance, Harald turned to see Sigi handing him a small penlight flashlight. The beam on it didn’t seem to go farther than a half a meter or so, but Harald was glad for it.
“Thanks,” Harald said quietly, smiling. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Good old Harald,” Sigi said. “Always running ahead of your brain.” Then Sigi produced a hemp rope from a wooden box near the opening of the tunnel and tied it around Harald’s waist.
“Just in case,” he said awkwardly.
Harald smiled and said nothing, nodded softly and turned back to the tunnel.
The fear that had made his heart want to jump out of his chest diminished to a dull thud behind his ribs, and he took a deep breath through his nose to try and quiet it even more. The old tunnel was half a meter in width where he lay on his stomach, but Harald could see that the width grew larger and smaller as he slithered forward. Dust exploded up from the surface beneath him, and his nose tickled. He involuntarily thought of the thousands who had died here in Berlin just 17 years before, many whose bodies were never found. Would his be added to the others?
His heart leaped again at the thought, and he tasted bile in his throat. He closed his eyes for a long moment, then put the thought out of his mind and slithered forward more. As he pushed his spade and flashlight ahead of him, the small penlight shining just a meter ahead, the darkness yawning beyond, he wondered how far below the surface he was. As if in reply, he felt rough stone to his left and realized that the tunnel was passing the foundation of another building.
Sigi and one of the others shouted behind him, but their voices were muffled and he couldn’t understand them. He tried to turn in the narrow tunnel to see them and realized that he couldn’t. Then a panicky thought went through his mind, the possibility threatening to overwhelm him. If he couldn’t turn around, how would he get back out?
Du blӧde, he told himself. He would just have to back out the tunnel. He would take it easy and slow. The rope around his waist meant not only that his friends would help him in case of a cave-in. They could help him as he backed out as well.
He heard his friends shouting again behind him, and again couldn’t understand what was being said. A moment later, he felt, rather than heard, a rumble from above, and dust began to fall from the tunnel’s ceiling. Someone must be using heavy equipment up there, he thought. It seemed odd that they would do so this late in the evening, but the East German government was eager for the Wall to be finished. Chances were that they were working on it, clearing old buildings, or something of the sort.
Sigi yelled at him once again, and he felt a pull on the rope attached to his waist. He started to turn to look around to look behind him. In that moment, the rumbling above him increased, and dirt began to fall. Harald realized that was what Sigi had been yelling about. The tunnel was collapsing.
Harald’s heart went into his throat as loose dirt and rocks began to fall all around him. He frantically began to crawl backwards down the tunnel, dropping the penlight in the process. Five seconds after starting his crawl, he realized he would never make it.
Instinctively he curled into a ball, his back arched above him and his head covered by his hands. He had let go of the trenching tool, but thought of it at the last second as the dirt, dust and rocks flew around him. He reached forward and grabbed the handle, pulling it toward him. A second later, he was entombed in loose dirt.
Harald held his breath, the dust filling his nose, his eyes and his ears. He thought he heard Sigi’s voice in the distance, but more than anything heart his heart pounding in his chest and in his ears. Tears formed in his eyes as he gritted his eyes closed and held his breath. Was this how he was to die?
His father had never talked about God, but his mother believed in Him. He remembered her praying with him at his bedside as a little boy. They had kneeled together, regardless of how cold it was, and prayed the same prayer each night: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake….” Harald had learned the prayer in English. His mother had said it was because she wanted him to practice English as much as possible, but Harald had always wondered if it was to somehow influence his non-believing American father.
Harald didn’t dare open his mouth to pray now, but he did so in his mind. It was all he had, that and the edge of panic that now came at him like a thundering waterfall. He was buried beneath tons of soft dirt.
He found his arms becoming wedged more and more tightly around his body by the dirt that surrounded him. Instinctively, he pulled his hands over his face, curved his back and shoved out in all directions, seeking as much space as he could find. He realized that it had been less than 30 seconds since the cave-in occurred, but it seemed like an eternity. He could not see, he could not breathe, and he felt the soft press of a meter of dirt on his entire body.
The panic began to come back, and he rapidly was losing touch with rational thought. Then he realized that his back was against something solid. He remembered that the tunnel had passed the stone foundation of a local shop a few meters back. He realized that he must be pressed up against a basement space, perhaps a cellar for a building that had been destroyed in the war.
He pushed with his feet against the soft dirt, trying to get leverage and somehow push the stones out of position. He didn’t dare think at how foolish the idea sounded; it was the only thing he could think of. He was surprised when he felt one of the stones move a little bit. His face still cupped with hands in front of them, he pushed again with his hips against the stone wall. It moved again, ever so slightly.
He realized that he was rapidly running out of air. The heavy stone was moving, but slowly, and at the rate he was going, he would suffocate before he got the stones loose. But if there were loose stones, perhaps there was air as well….
The dirt around his was still loose, but he knew that every move he made would pack the dirt more solidly around his body. He also found that the rope still attached to his waist was keeping him from turning over. He slid his hands from his face down his chest to his waist and quickly tried to untie the rope. He fumbled, but was successful in untying the rope. Immediately it slithered away, and he knew that his friends were probably pulling on it, hoping to bring him back.
With the rope gone, he wiggled and squirmed until he turned completely around, his face now facing the rocks of the old basement. He had kept his eyes closed, trying to keep the dirt out of them, but as he faced the stone wall, he felt stale air against them. He opened his eyes and saw faint cracks of light coming from between the stones.
Where there was light, there was air. He exhaled vigorously, then pressed his mouth to one of the cracks, sucking in fetid air. It was stale and foul smelling, and it was more precious to him right now than anything else in life.
He lay still for a long while, breathing in the stale air and regaining his strength. Then he took his hands and feet and began pushing on the stones in front of him. Ten minutes later, the stone in front of him fell free and a space half a meter across appeared in front of him.
Coughing, wheezing, and shaking dirt from his hair and face, Harald pulled himself into the dark cellar and fell face first into the space and toward the floor a meter below.
He landed with a smack on what felt like old cloth, papers and brittle, dried wood or leather. He had lost his penlight somewhere in the tunnel, so it was impossible to see clearly. A faint light shone from between the heavy beams above his head. It was dusk, and he knew that another day would bring light that would help him find his way around. But he also knew that he was likely to freeze where he was. He needed to get out of there.
He stood and realized that the heavy beams were low and that he could not stand erect without hitting his head. He also saw that the massive beams prevented him from escaping that way. His eyes grew more and more accustomed to the dark. It was when a passing car’s headlights shone through the cracks of the beams that he realized that he was not alone in the cellar.
The yellow rays of light shone across the small room, revealing to Harald that the cellar was used at one time as a bomb shelter. What he had thought was wood was the broken bones of Nazi soldiers, trapped in the shelter, as he was. What he had thought was leather was their skin.
He took another look at the dessicated face of a corpse in SS uniform, staring back at him from across the cellar.
It was going to be a long night.