Chapter no 30 – Herr Siedler

All the Light We Cannot See

knock after curfew. Werner and Jutta are doing schoolwork with a half-dozen other children at the long wooden table. Frau Elena pins her party insignia through her lapel before opening the door.

A lance corporal with a pistol on his belt and a swastika band on his left arm steps in from the rain. Beneath the low ceiling of the room, the man looks absurdly tall. Werner thinks of the shortwave radio tucked into the old wooden first-aid cabinet beneath his cot. He thinks: They know.

The lance corporal looks around the room—the coal stove, the hanging laundry, the undersize children—with equal measures of condescension and hostility. His handgun is black; it seems to draw all the light in the room toward it.

Werner risks a single glance at his sister. Her attention stays fixed on the visitor. The corporal picks up a book from the parlor table—a children’s book about a talking train—and turns every one of its pages before dropping it. Then he says something that Werner can’t hear.

Frau Elena folds her hands over her apron, and Werner can see she has done so to keep them from shaking. “Werner,” she calls in a slow, dreamlike voice, without taking her eyes from the corporal. “This man says he has a wireless in need of—”

“Bring your tools,” the man says.

On the way out, Werner looks back only once: Jutta’s forehead and palms are pressed against the glass of the living room window. She is backlit and too far away and he cannot read her expression. Then the rain obscures her.

Werner is half the corporal’s height and has to take two strides for every one of the man’s. He follows past company houses and the sentry at the bottom of the hill to where the mining officials reside. Rain falls slant through the lights. The few people they pass give the corporal a wide berth.

Werner risks no questions. With every heartbeat comes a sharp longing to run.

They approach the gate of the largest house in the colony, a house he has seen a thousand times but never so close. A large crimson flag, heavy with rainwater, hangs from the sill of an upstairs window.

The corporal raps on a rear door. A maid in a high-waisted dress takes their coats, expertly flips off the water, and hangs them on a brass-footed rack. The kitchen smells of cake.

The corporal steers Werner into a dining room where a narrow-faced woman with three fresh daisies stuck through her hair sits in a chair turning the pages of a magazine. “Two wet ducks,” she says, and looks back at her magazine. She does not ask them to sit.

A thick red carpet sucks at the soles of Werner’s brogues; electric bulbs burn in a chandelier above the table; roses twine across the wallpaper. A fire smolders in the fireplace. On all four walls hang framed tintypes of glowering ancestors. Is this where they arrest boys whose sisters listen to foreign radio stations? The woman turns pages of her magazine, one after another. Her fingernails are bright pink.

A man comes down the stairs wearing an extremely white shirt. “Christ, he is little, isn’t he?” he says to the lance corporal. “You’re the famous radio repairman?” The man’s thick black hair looks lacquered to his skull. “Rudolf Siedler,” he says. He dismisses the corporal with a slight wag of his chin.

Werner tries to exhale. Herr Siedler buttons his cuffs and examines himself in a smoky mirror. His eyes are profoundly blue. “Well. Not a long-winded boy, are you? There’s the offending device.” He points to a massive American Philco in the adjacent room. “Two fellows have looked at it already. Then we heard about you. Worth a try, right? She”— he nods at the woman—“is desperate to hear her program. News bulletins too, of course.”

He says this in such a way that Werner understands the woman does not really wish to listen to news bulletins. She does not look up. Herr Siedler smiles as if to say: You and I, son, we know history takes a longer course, don’t we? His teeth are very small. “Take your time with it.”

Werner squats in front of the set and tries to calm his nerves. He switches it on, waits for the tubes to warm, then runs the dial carefully down the band, right to left. He runs the knob back toward the right. Nothing.

It is the finest radio he has ever laid hands on: an inclined control panel, magnetic tuning, big as an icebox. Ten-tube, all-wave,

superheterodyne, with fancy gadrooned moldings and a two-tone walnut cabinet. It has shortwave, wide frequencies, a big attenuator—this radio costs more than everything at Children’s House put together. Herr Siedler could probably hear Africa if he wanted to.

Green and red spines of books line the walls. The lance corporal is gone. In the next room, Herr Siedler stands in a pool of lamplight, talking into a black telephone.

They are not arresting him. They merely want him to fix this radio.

Werner unscrews the backing and peers inside. The tubes are all intact, and nothing looks amiss. “All right,” he mumbles to himself. “Think.” He sits cross-legged; he examines the circuitry. The man and the woman and the books and the rain recede until there is only the radio and its tangle of wires. He tries to envision the bouncing pathways of electrons, the signal chain like a path through a crowded city, RF signal coming in here, passing through a grid of amplifiers, then to variable condensers, then to transformer coils . . .

He sees it. There are two breaks in one of the resistance wires. Werner peers over the top of the set: to his left, the woman reads her magazine; to his right, Herr Siedler speaks into the telephone. Every so often Herr Siedler runs his thumb and finger along the crease in his pin-striped trousers, sharpening it.

Could two men have missed something so simple? It feels like a gift. So easy! Werner rewinds the resistance track and splices the wires and plugs in the radio. When he turns it on, he half expects fire to leap out of the machine. Instead: the smoky murmur of a saxophone.

At the table the woman puts down her magazine and sets all ten fingers on her cheeks. Werner climbs out from behind the radio. For a moment his mind is clear of all feeling save triumph.

“He fixed it just by thinking!” the woman exclaims. Herr Siedler covers the mouthpiece of the telephone receiver and looks over. “He sat there like a little mouse and thought, and in half a minute it was fixed!” She flourishes her brilliant fingernails and breaks into childlike laughter.

Herr Siedler hangs up the phone. The woman crosses into the sitting room and kneels in front of the radio—she is barefoot, and her smooth white calves show beneath the hem of her skirt. She rotates the knob. There is a sputter, then a torrent of bright music. The radio produces a vivid, full sound: Werner has never heard another like it.

“Oh!” Again she laughs.

Werner gathers his tools. Herr Siedler stands in front of the radio and seems about to pat him on the head. “Outstanding,” he says. He ushers Werner to the dining table and calls for the maid to bring cake. Immediately it appears: four wedges on a plain white plate. Each is dusted with confectioners’ sugar and topped by a dollop of whipped cream. Werner gapes. Herr Siedler laughs. “Cream is forbidden. I know. But”—he puts a forefinger to his lips—“there are ways around such things. Go on.”

Werner takes a piece. Powdered sugar cascades down his chin. In the other room the woman twists the dial, and voices sermonize from the speaker. She listens awhile, then applauds, kneeling there in her bare feet. The stern faces in the tintypes stare down.

Werner eats one piece of cake, then another, then takes a third. Herr Siedler watches with his head slightly cocked, amused, considering something. “You do have a look, don’t you? And that hair. Like you’ve had a terrible shock. Who is your father?”

Werner shakes his head.

“Right. Children’s House. Silly me. Have another. Get some more cream on it, now.”

The woman claps again. Werner’s stomach gives a creaking sound.

He can feel the man’s eyes on him.

“People say it must not be a great posting, here at the mines,” says Herr Siedler. “They say: ‘Wouldn’t you rather be in Berlin? Or France? Wouldn’t you rather be a captain at the front, watching the lines advance, away from all this’”—he waves his hand at the window—“‘soot?’ But I tell them I live at the center of it all. I tell them this is where the fuel is coming from, the steel too. This is the furnace of the country.”

Werner clears his throat. “We act in the interest of peace.” It is, verbatim, a sentence he and Jutta heard on Deutschlandsender radio three days before. “In the interest of the world.”

Herr Siedler laughs. Again Werner is impressed with how numerous and tiny his teeth are.

“You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.”

A single slice of cake remains. The radio purrs and the woman laughs and Herr Siedler looks almost nothing, Werner decides, like his neighbors, their guarded, anxious faces—faces of people accustomed to watching loved ones disappear every morning into pits. His face is clean and committed; he is a man supremely confident in his privileges. And five yards away kneels this woman with varnished fingernails and hairless calves—a woman so entirely removed from Werner’s previous experience that it is as if she is from a different planet. As if she has stepped out of the big Philco itself.

“Good with tools,” Herr Siedler is saying. “Smart beyond your years. There are places for a boy like you. General Heissmeyer’s schools. Best of the best. Teach the mechanical sciences too. Code breaking, rocket propulsion, all the latest.”

Werner does not know where to set his gaze. “We do not have money.”

“That’s the genius of these institutions. They want the working classes, laborers. Boys who aren’t stamped by”—Herr Siedler frowns

—“middle-class garbage. The cinemas and so forth. They want industrious boys. Exceptional boys.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Exceptional,” he repeats, nodding, talking as if only to himself. He gives a whistle and the lance corporal returns, helmet in hand. The soldier’s eyes flit to the remaining piece of cake and then away. “There’s a recruiting board in Essen,” Herr Siedler is saying. “I’ll write you a letter. And take this.” He hands Werner seventy-five marks, and Werner tucks the bills into his pocket as quickly as he can.

The corporal laughs. “Looks like it burned his fingers!”

Herr Siedler’s attention is somewhere else. “I will send Heissmeyer a letter,” he repeats. “Good for us, good for you. We act in the interest of the world, eh?” He winks. Then the corporal gives Werner a curfew pass and shows him out.

Werner walks home oblivious to the rain, trying to absorb the immensity of what has happened. Nine herons stand like flowers in the canal beside the coking plant. A barge sounds its outcast horn and coal cars trundle to and fro and the regular thudding of the hauling machine reverberates through the gloom.

At Children’s House, everyone has been put to bed. Frau Elena sits just inside the entryway with a mountain of laundered stockings in her

lap and the bottle of kitchen sherry between her feet. Behind her, at the table, Jutta watches Werner with electric intensity.

Frau Elena says, “What did he want?” “He only wanted me to fix a radio.” “Nothing more?”


“Did they have questions? About you? Or the children?” “No, Frau Elena.”

Frau Elena lets out a huge breath, as if she has not exhaled these past two hours. “Dieu merci.” She rubs her temples with both hands. “You can go to bed now, Jutta,” she says.

Jutta hesitates.

“I fixed it,” says Werner.

“That’s a good boy, Werner.” Frau Elena takes a long pull of sherry and her eyes close and her head rocks back. “We saved you some supper.” Jutta walks to the stairs, uncertainty in her eyes.

In the kitchen, everything looks coal-stained and cramped. Frau Elena brings a plate; on it sits a single boiled potato cut in two.

“Thank you,” says Werner. The taste of the cake is still in his mouth. The pendulum swings on and on in the old grandfather clock. The cake, the whipped cream, the thick carpet, the pink fingernails and long calves of Fräulein Siedler—these sensations whirl through Werner’s head as if on a carousel. He remembers towing Jutta to Pit Nine, where their father disappeared, evening after evening, as if their father might come shuffling out of the elevators.

Light, electricity, ether. Space, time, mass. Heinrich Hertz’s Principles of Mechanics. Heissmeyer’s famous schools. Code breaking, rocket propulsion, all the latest.

Open your eyes, the Frenchman on the radio used to say, and see what you can with them before they close forever.


“Yes, Frau?”

“Aren’t you hungry?”

Frau Elena: as close to a mother as he will ever have. Werner eats, though he is not hungry. Then he gives her the seventy-five marks, and she blinks at the amount and gives fifty back.

Upstairs, after he has heard Frau Elena go to the toilet and climb into her own bed and the house has become utterly quiet, Werner counts to

one hundred. Then he rises from his cot and takes the little shortwave radio out of the first-aid box—six years old and bristling with his modifications, replacement wires, a new solenoid, Jutta’s notations orbiting the tuning coil—and carries it into the alley behind the house and crushes it with a brick.

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