A Man Without Breath

by Philip Kerr

A Man Without Breath

Hardcover, 465 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $26.95 | purchase

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A Man Without Breath
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Philip Kerr

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Book Summary

Working in the Wehrmacht's War Crime Bureau of 1943 at the behest of an old friend, sardonic Berlin cop Bernie Gunther struggles to find proof of Russian responsibility for a mass shooting of Polish army officers.

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Excerpt: A Man Without Breath

Chapter One

Monday, March 1, 1943

Franz Meyer stood up at the head of the table, glanced down, touched the cloth, and awaited our silence. With his fair hair, blue eyes, and neoclassical features that looked as if they'd been carved by Arno Breker, Hitler's official state sculptor, he was no one's idea of a Jew. Half of the SS and SD were more obviously Semitic. Meyer took a deep, almost euphoric breath, gave a broad grin that was part relief and part joie de vivre, and raised his glass to each of the four women seated around the table. None were Jewish and yet, by the racial stereotypes beloved of the Propaganda Ministry, they might have been; all were Germans with strong noses, dark eyes, and even darker hair. For a moment Meyer seemed choked with emotion, and when at last he was able to speak, there were tears in his eyes.

"I'd like to thank my wife and her sisters for your efforts on my behalf," he said. "To do what you did took great courage, and I can't tell you what it meant to those of us who were imprisoned in the Jewish Welfare Office to know that there were so many people on the outside who cared enough to come and demonstrate on our behalf."

"I still can't believe they haven't arrested us," said Meyer's wife, Siv.

"They're so used to people just doing what they're told," said his sister-in-law, Klara, "that they don't know what to do."

"We'll go back to Rosenstrasse tomorrow," insisted Siv. "We won't stop until everyone in there is released. All two thousand of them. We've shown what we can do when public opinion is mobilized. We have to keep the pressure up."

"Yes," said Meyer. "And we will. We will. But right now I'd like to propose a toast. To our new friend Bernie Gunther. But for him and his colleagues at the War Crimes Bureau, I'd probably still be imprisoned in the Jewish Welfare Office. And who knows where after that?" He smiled. "To Bernie."

There were six of us in the cozy little dining room in the Meyers' apartment in Lützowerstrasse. As four of them stood up and toasted me silently, I shook my head. I wasn't sure I deserved Franz Meyer's thanks, and besides, the wine we were drinking was a decent German red — a Spätburgunder from long before the war that he and his wife would have done better to have traded for some food instead of wasting it on me. Any wine — let alone a good German red — was almost impossible to come by in Berlin.

Politely I waited for them to drink to my health before standing up to contradict my host. "I'm not sure I can claim to have had much influence on the SS," I explained. "I spoke to a couple of cops I know who were policing your demonstration and they told me there's a strong rumor doing the rounds that most of the prisoners arrested on Saturday as part of the factory action will probably be released in a few days."

"That's incredible," said Klara. "But what does it mean, Bernie? Do you think the authorities are actually going soft on deportations?"

Before I could offer my opinion the air raid warning siren sounded. We all looked at each other in surprise; it had been almost two years since the last air raid by the Royal Air Force.

"We should go to the shelter," I said. "Or the basement, perhaps."

Meyer nodded. "Yes, you're right," he said firmly. "You should all go. Just in case it's for real."

I fetched my coat and hat off the stand and turned back to Meyer.

"But you're coming, too, aren't you?" I said.

"Jews aren't permitted in the shelters. Perhaps you didn't notice it before. Well, there's no reason why you should have. I don't think there's been an air raid since we started to wear the yellow star."

I shook my head. "No, I didn't." I shrugged. "So, where are Jews supposed to go?"

"To hell, of course. At least, that's what they hope." This time Meyer's grin was sardonic. "Besides, people know this is a Jewish apartment, and since the law requires that homes be left with their doors and windows open, to minimize the effect of a pressure wave from a bomb blast, that's also an invitation to some local thief to come and steal from us." He shook his head. "So I shall stay here."

I glanced out the window; in the street below, hundreds of people were already being herded toward the local shelter by uniformed police. There wasn't much time to lose.

"Franz," said Siv. "We're not going there without you. Just leave your coat. If they can't see your star, they'll have to assume you're German. You can carry me in and say I fainted, and if I show my pass and say I'm your wife then no one will be any the wiser."

"She's right," I said.

"And if I'm arrested, what then? I've only just been released." Meyer shook his head and laughed. "Besides, it's probably a false alarm. Hasn't Fat Hermann promised us that this is the best-defended city in Europe?"

The siren continued to wail outside like some dreadful mechanical clarion announcing the end of a night shift in the smoking factories of hell.

Siv Meyer sat down at the table and clasped her hands tight. "If you're not going, then I'm not going."

"Neither am I," Klara said, sitting down beside her.

"There's no time to argue about this," said Meyer. "You should go. All of you."

"He's right," I said, more urgently now as already we could hear the drone of the bombers in the distance; it was obvious this was no false alarm. I opened the door and waved the four women toward me. "Come on," I said.

"No," said Siv. "We're staying."

The two other sisters glanced at each other and then sat down alongside their Jewish brother-in-law. This left me on my feet with a coat in my hand and a nervous look on my face. After all, I'd seen what our own bombers had done to Minsk and parts of France. I put on the coat and shoved my hands in the pockets so as to conceal the fact that they were shaking.

"I don't think they're coming to drop propaganda leaflets," I said. "Not this time."

"Yes, but it's not civilians like us they're after, surely," said Siv. "It's the government district. They'll know there's a hospital near here. The RAF won't want to risk hitting the Catholic Hospital, will they? The English aren't like that. It's the Wilhelmstrasse they'll be after."

"How will they know from two thousand feet up in the air?" I heard myself utter weakly.

"She's right," said Meyer. "It's not the west of Berlin they're targeting. It's the east. Which means it's probably just as well we're none of us in Rosenstrasse tonight." He smiled at me. "You should go, Bernie. We'll be all right. You'll see."

"I expect you're right," I said and, deciding to ignore the air raid siren like the others, I started to take off my coat. "All the same, I can hardly leave you all here."

"Why not?" asked Klara.

I shrugged, but what it really came down to was this: I could hardly leave and still manage to look good in Klara's lovely brown eyes, and I was quite keen that she should have a good impression of me; but I didn't feel I could say this to her, not yet.

For a moment I felt my chest tighten as my nerves continued to get the better of me. Then I heard some bombs explode in the distance and breathed a sigh of relief. Back in the trenches, during the Great War, when you could hear the shells exploding somewhere else, it usually meant you were safe because it was commonly held that you never heard the one that killed you.

"Sounds like it's north Berlin that's getting it," I said, leaning in the doorway. "The petroleum refinery on Thalerstrasse, probably. It's the only real target around here. But I think we should at least get under the table. Just in case a stray bomb — "

I think that was the last thing I said and probably it was the fact that I was standing in the doorway that saved my life because just then the glass in the nearest window frame seemed to melt into a thousand drops of light. Some of these old Berlin apartment buildings were made to last, and I later learned that the bomb that blew up the one we were in — not to mention the hospital on Lützowstrasse — and flattened it in a split second would certainly have killed me had not the lintel above my head and the stout oak door that was hanging inside it resisted the weight of the roof's metal joist, for this is what killed Siv Meyer and her three sisters.

After that there was darkness and silence, except for the sound of a kettle on a gas plate whistling as it came slowly to the boil, although this was probably just the sensation in my battered eardrums. It was as if someone had switched off an electric light and then pulled away the floorboards on which I had been standing, and the effect of the world disappearing from underneath my feet might have been similar to the sensation of being hooded and hanged on a gallows. I don't know. All I really remember of what happened is that I was upside down lying on a pile of rubble when I recovered consciousness and there was a door on top of my face which, for several minutes until I recovered enough breath in my bomb-blasted lungs to moan for help, I was convinced was the lid of my own damned coffin.

From A Man Without Breath by Philip Kerr. Copyright 2013 by Philip Kerr. Excerpted by permission of Putnam Books and Penguin Books USA.

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