Chapter no 38 – Entrance Exam

All the Light We Cannot See

Entrance exams for the National Political Institutes of Education are held in Essen, eighteen miles south of Zollverein, inside a sweltering dance hall where a trio of truck-sized radiators is plugged in to the back wall. One of the radiators clangs and steams all day despite various attempts to shut it down. War ministry flags as big as tanks hang from the rafters.

There are one hundred recruits, all boys. A school representative in a black uniform arranges them in ranks four deep. Medals chime on his chest as he paces. “You are,” he declares, “attempting to enter the most elite schools in the world. The exams will last eight days. We will take only the purest, only the strongest.” A second representative distributes uniforms: white shirts, white shorts, white socks. The boys shuck their clothes where they stand.

Werner counts twenty-six others in his age group. All but two are taller than he is. All but three are blond. None of them wear eyeglasses.

The boys spend that entire first morning in their new white outfits, filling out questionnaires on clipboards. There is no noise save the scribbling of pencils and the pacing of examiners and the clunking of the huge radiator.

Where was your grandfather born? What color are your father’s eyes? Has your mother ever worked in an office? Of one hundred and ten questions about his lineage, Werner can accurately answer only sixteen. The rest are guesses.

Where is your mother from?

There are no options for past tense. He writes: Germany. Where is your father from?


What languages does your mother speak? German.

He remembers Frau Elena as she looked early this morning, standing in her nightdress beside the hall lamp, fussing over his bag, all the other children asleep. She seemed lost, dazed, as if she could not absorb how

quickly things were changing around her. She said she was proud. She said Werner should do his best. “You’re a smart boy,” she said. “You’ll do well.” She kept adjusting and readjusting his collar. When he said, “It’s only a week,” her eyes filled slowly, as if some internal flood were gradually overwhelming her.

In the afternoon, the recruits run. They crawl under obstacles, do push-ups, scale ropes suspended from the ceiling—one hundred children passing sleek and interchangeable in their white uniforms like livestock before the eyes of the examiners. Werner comes in ninth in the shuttle runs. He comes in second to last on the rope climb. He will never be good enough.

In the evening, the boys spill out of the hall, some met by proud-looking parents with automobiles, others vanishing purposefully in twos and threes into the streets: all seem to know where they’re going. Werner makes his way alone to a spartan hostel six blocks away, where he rents a bed for two marks a night and lies among muttering itinerants and listens to the pigeons and bells and shuddering traffic of Essen. It is the first night he has spent outside of Zollverein, and he cannot stop thinking of Jutta, who has not spoken to him since discovering he smashed their radio. Who stared at him with so much accusation in her face that he had to look away. Her eyes said, You are betraying me, but wasn’t he protecting her?

On the second morning, there are raciological exams. They require little of Werner except to raise his arms or keep from blinking while an inspector shines a penlight into the tunnels of his pupils. He sweats and shifts. His heart pounds unreasonably. An onion-breathed technician in a lab coat measures the distance between Werner’s temples, the circumference of his head, and the thickness and shape of his lips. Calipers are used to evaluate his feet, the length of his fingers, and the distance between his eyes and his navel. They measure his penis. The angle of his nose is quantified with a wooden protractor.

A second technician gauges Werner’s eye color against a chromatic scale on which sixty or so shades of blue are displayed. Werner’s color is himmelblau, sky blue. To assess his hair color, the man snips a lock of hair from Werner’s head and compares it to thirty or so other locks clipped to a board, arrayed darkest to lightest.

Schnee,” the man mutters, and makes a notation. Snow. Werner’s hair is lighter than the lightest color on the board.

They test his vision, draw his blood, take his fingerprints. By noon he wonders if there is anything left for them to measure.

Verbal exams come next. How many Nationalpolitische Erzie-hungsanstalten are there? Twenty. Who are our greatest Olympians? He does not know. What is the birthday of the führer? April 20. Who is our greatest writer, what is the Treaty of Versailles, which is the nation’s fastest airplane?

Day three involves more running, more climbing, more jumping. Everything is timed. The technicians, school representatives, and examiners—each wearing uniforms in subtly different shades—scribble on pads of graph paper with a very narrow gauge, and sheet after sheet of this paper gets closed into leather binders with a gold lightning bolt stamped on the front.

The recruits speculate in eager whispers.

“I hear the schools have sailboats, falconries, rifle ranges.” “I hear they will take only seven from each age group.”

“I hear it’s only four.”

They speak of the schools with yearning and bravado; they want desperately to be selected. Werner tells himself: So do I. So do I.

And yet at other times, despite his ambitions, he is visited by instants of vertigo; he sees Jutta holding the smashed pieces of their radio and feels uncertainty steal into his gut.

The recruits scale walls; they run wind sprint after wind sprint. On the fifth day, three quit. On the sixth, four more give up. Each hour the dance hall seems to grow progressively warmer, so by the eighth day, the air, walls, and floor are saturated with the hot, teeming odor of boys. For their final test, each of the fourteen-year-olds is forced to climb a ladder haphazardly nailed to a wall. Once at the top, twenty-five feet above the floor, their heads in the rafters, they are supposed to step onto a tiny platform, close their eyes, and leap off, to be caught in a flag held by a dozen of the other recruits.

First to go is a stout farm kid from Herne. He scales the ladder quickly enough, but as soon as he’s on the platform high above everyone else, his face goes white. His knees wobble dangerously.

Someone mutters, “Pussy.”

The boy beside Werner whispers, “Afraid of heights.”

An examiner watches dispassionately. The boy on the platform peeks over the edge as if into a swirling abyss and shuts his eyes. He sways

back and forth. Interminable seconds pass. The examiner peers at his stopwatch. Werner clutches the hem of the flag.

Soon most everyone in the dance hall has stopped to watch, even recruits in other age groups. The boy sways twice more, until it’s clear he’s about to faint. Even then no one moves to help him.

When he goes over, he goes sideways. The recruits on the ground manage to swing the flag around in time, but his weight tears the edges out of their hands, and he hits the floor arms first with a sound like a bundle of kindling breaking over a knee.

The boy sits up. Both of his forearms are bent at nauseating angles. He blinks at them curiously for a moment, as if scanning his memory for a clue that might explain how he got there.

Then he starts to scream. Werner looks away. Four boys are ordered to carry the injured one out.

One by one, the remaining fourteen-year-olds climb the ladder and tremble and leap. One sobs the whole way. Another sprains an ankle when he hits. The next waits at least two full minutes before jumping. The fifteenth boy looks out across the dance hall as if staring into a bleak, cold sea, then climbs back down.

Werner watches from his place on the flag. When his turn comes, he tells himself, he must not waver. On the undersides of his eyelids he sees the interlaced ironwork of Zollverein, the fire-breathing mills, men teeming out of elevator shafts like ants, the mouth of Pit Nine, where his father was lost. Jutta in the parlor window, sealed behind the rain, watching him follow the corporal to Herr Siedler’s house. The taste of whipped cream and powdered sugar and the smooth calves of Herr Siedler’s wife.

Exceptional. Unexpected.

We will take only the purest, only the strongest.

The only place your brother is going, little girl, is into the mines.

Werner scampers up the ladder. The rungs have been roughly sawed, and his palms take splinters the whole way. From the top, the crimson flag with its white circle and black cross looks unexpectedly small. A pale ring of faces stares up. It’s even hotter up here, torrid, and the smell of perspiration makes him light-headed.

Without hesitating, Werner steps to the edge of the platform and shuts his eyes and jumps. He hits the flag in its exact center, and the boys holding its edges give a collective groan.

He rolls to his feet, uninjured. The examiner clicks his stopwatch, scribbles on his clipboard, looks up. Their eyes meet for a half second. Maybe less. Then the man goes back to his notations.

Heil Hitler!” yells Werner.

The next boy starts up the ladder.

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