Stettin Station NPR coverage of Stettin Station by David Downing. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
NPR logo Stettin Station

Stettin Station

by David Downing

Hardcover, 289 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $25 |


Buy Featured Book

Stettin Station
David Downing

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Book Summary

In the fall of 1941, Anglo-American journalist John Russell is still living in Berlin, tied to the increasingly alien city by his love for two Berliners: his fourteen-year-old son Paul and his longtime girlfriend Effi. Forced to work for both German and American intelligence, he's searching for a way out of Germany. Can he escape and take Effi with him?

Read an excerpt of this book

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Stettin Station

Stettin Station

Soho Press, Inc.

Copyright © 2009 David Downing
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-56947-634-5

Chapter One

Ways of leaving Berlin

There was no doubt about it - two years into the war, the Third Reich was beginning to smell.

The U-Bahn was unusually ripe that morning, John Russell thought, though it was only the sheer severity of the pong which gave rise to any surprise. Berliners seemed increasingly reluctant to use the hyper-abrasive standardised soap, which removed both dirt and skin, and there was no alternative to the chemical-rich standardised food, which had created a city-wide epidemic of flatulence. Some laid particular blame on the grey, clayey bread, others on the miracle ingredient which turned the ersatz butter yellow. But whatever the cause, the U-Bahn was the place to experience the consequences, and several of his fellow passengers were travelling with their noses buried deep in scarves and handkerchiefs.

At the far end of the violently rocking car - adequate suspension was a casualty of the rubber shortage - two middle-aged men in leather coats were looming over an attractive woman and her young child. They were all smiles, but her rapidly changing facial expressions bore all the unease of a potential victim, and her relief at reaching her stop was obvious to all but her unwitting tormentors.

The Gestapo seemed to be all over the capital these days, their numbers rising steadily since the onset of the Russian campaign and the economic downturn which had soon accompanied it. Over the last month, since the announcement of victory in early October and the subsequent collapse in morale when that had proved a mirage, the swelling numbers of leather-coated myrmidons had been ever more noticeable, and the fact that these two were pestering women on the U-Bahn offered clear proof that the bastards' numbers had outstripped the availability of their beloved black Mercedes.

The impression of political screws tightening was the main reason why Russell had finally decided it was time to get out. There was, however, no point in applying for an exit permit - with his history, the Germans wouldn't let him go until the United States formally entered the war, and maybe not even then. Even if they did prove unexpectedly willing to abide by international conventions in his particular case, Russell foresaw months of internment, trapped in a camp somewhere, waiting and wondering whether any of the freshly arrested were coughing up his name along with the blood and the broken teeth. It was not a pleasant prospect.

Nor were there any circumstances in which the Nazis would let his girlfriend Effi go. She might not be Marlene Dietrich, but her name and face were recognisable to a lot of Germans, and Joey Goebbels would never allow such a public defection. And if the authorities did, for reasons best known to themselves, let Russell go, they could always use her as a hostage for his good behaviour. All the stories he had not been allowed to file, the stories he hoped to tell once he escaped the cage, would have to remain untold. His exit - their exit - would have to be an illegal one.

The Americans wouldn't offer any real help, despite his years of admittedly half-hearted time in their employ. Russell's main contact at the Consulate had said that they would try to get him out, but that there was nothing they could do for Effi; the two of them were not married, and even if they were, well, surely Russell could see the problem. He could. These last few weeks, with the undeclared war escalating in the Atlantic, the German security agencies were no longer respecting the diplomatic rules, and had even invaded the Consulate on one occasion. If he and Effi sought sanctuary there, it seemed more than likely that Heydrich's goons would simply stride in and drag them back out.

Only the comrades remained, and the emergency telephone number he'd been given more than two years ago. This belonged to a photographic studio in Neukölln which he had used for work in his freelance days, and the burly Silesian named Miroslav Zembski who owned and ran it. Russell had used the number once in September 1939, and had thereafter deemed it prudent to avoid all contact with Zembski and his studio. Until the previous Friday, that is, when he'd called the number from a public telephone on the Ku'damm.

Someone had answered, at least in the sense of picking up the phone. A slight intake of breath was all Russell heard at the other end, and he had probably imagined the whiff of malevolence seeping down the wire. He had put the phone back after a few seconds, and concluded that a personal visit to the studio would be unwise. But three more days of ominous news from Washington - Japan and the US really did seem to be sliding into war - had reignited his sense of urgency, and put him on this train to Neukölln. He knew he was being reckless: if Zembski wasn't there, then at best he had disappeared, at worst he was under arrest, and Russell would gain nothing from finding out which it was. Yet here he was, needing to know. Like a moth to a very real flame.

He told himself that Zembski would probably be there, that his own telephone call could have been picked up by a child or an idiot while the fat Silesian was busy taking pictures, that he was, in any case, an innocent customer with a film in his pocket to prove it, a highly appropriate set of shots of his son Paul at a Jungvolk passing-out parade. The risk was negligible, he told himself, the potential prize enormous.

He emerged from the U-Bahn entrance on the western side of Berlinerstrasse, and walked under the S-Bahn bridge in the direction of the studio. The last time he had visited it, the street had been full of traffic, the air full of savoury smells, the buildings awash with neon and full of things to sell. Now it reminded him of a German colleague's words, that these days the capital had all the colour of a corpse. The lights were out, the odours dubious, the shop windows at least half empty. The sky seemed to be clearing, a state of affairs which Russell and his fellow-Berliners had once anticipated with some relief, assuming - fools that they were - that such conditions would make it easier for the RAF to see and hit their industrial and transport targets. But no, the British pilots seemed incapable of hitting anything relevant to the war effort. Their bombing campaign was like an Italian lottery in reverse - your chances of losing were extremely remote, but no more remote than anyone else's. Some dear old grandmother in her suburban apartment was as likely to catch it as IG Farben - in fact probably more so, because the pilots were presumably targeting the chemical giant.

Russell stopped outside the restaurant which sat across the road from Zembski's. The photographer's name was still above the door, but the drawn blackout curtains precluded any view of the interior. Was there anyone in? There was only one way to find out.

Crossing the empty road, Russell pushed open the door with what he hoped was the brashness of innocence. There was nobody behind Zembski's counter, on which lay a tripod, still attached to a clearly broken camera. A middle-aged man in a dark grey suit was sitting on one of the chairs which the photographer had used for family portraits, his leather coat draped across another, his hands cradled in his lap. His younger partner was sitting almost behind the door, arms folded across the front of his coat. A gun lay on the cabinet beside him.

'How can I help you?' the older man asked with a heavy Bavarian accent. He was about forty, with sharpish features that ill-suited his general bulk, rather in the manner of an over-inflated Goebbels.

'Is the studio closed?' Russell asked. 'Where is Herr Zembski?' he added, realising a few seconds later that acknowledging an acquaintance with the studio's owner might prove unwise.

'He is no longer here,' said the younger man. He was a Berliner, dark and thin, with the sort of face that would always need shaving. 'He has gone out of business,' the first man said. 'Please sit down,' he told Russell, indicating a chair and taking a notebook and pencil from the inside pocket of his jacket. 'We have some questions.'

'What about?' Russell asked, staying on his feet. 'And who are you?' he added, hoping to play the outraged innocent.

'Gestapo,' the older man said shortly, as if it hardly needed saying.

It didn't, and Russell decided that asking to see the man's identification might be pushing his luck. He sat down.

'Your papers?'

Russell handed them over, and noted the flicker of interest in the Gestapo man's eyes.

'John Russell,' he read aloud. 'American,' he added, with a glance at his partner. 'Your German is excellent,' he told Russell.

'I've lived here for almost twenty years.'

'Ah. You live on Carmer Strasse. That's near Savigny Platz, is it not?'


The man turned to his accreditation from Promi, as the Ministry of Propaganda was almost universally called. 'You are a journalist. Working for the San Francisco Tribune.'


His interrogator was now scribbling in the notebook, copying down relevant details from Russell's identity and press documents. 'You have been to this studio before?' he asked without raising his eyes.

'Not for a long time. Before the war I used it whenever I needed photographic work.'

The eyes looked up. 'A long way from Savigny Platz. Are there no studios closer to home?'

'Zembski is cheap.'

'Ah. So why did you stop coming here?'

'I changed jobs. The paper I work for now uses the big agencies for photographs.'

'So why are you here today?'

'A personal job.' Russell took the envelope of snapshots from his inside pocket, silently blessing his own forethought, and handed them over. 'I wanted one of these enlarged, and I've lost the negatives. I remembered Zembski doing something similar for me years ago, and doing it well. They're of my son,' he added in explanation.

The older Gestapo man was looking through the pictures, his younger partner peering over his shoulder. 'He's a good-looking boy. His mother is German?'

'Yes, she is.'

Russell felt a sudden, almost violent aversion to the way the two men were staring at the pictures of Paul, but managed not to show it.

The photographs were handed back to him.

'So Zembski won't be back?' he asked.

'No,' the older man said with the hint of a smile. 'I believe he returned to Silesia.'

'Then I will have to find another studio. Is that all?'

'For the moment.'

Russell nodded, a tacit recognition that a conditional release was all that anyone could hope for in such difficult days, and the younger Gestapo man even opened the door for him. Once outside he play-acted a period of hesitation, ostentatiously checked that his ration stamps were in his pocket, then headed across the street to the café opposite, where he made a further show of inspecting the meagre menu on display before venturing into the steamy interior. Twice in the distant past handwritten notes on the studio door had pointed Russell in this direction, and on both occasions he had found Zembski amiably chatting with the proprietor, an old man with thick Hohenzollern sideburns. The latter was still there, propping up his counter and eyeing Russell with more than a trace of suspicion. The only other customer was reading a paper by the window.

'Remember me?' Russell asked. 'Zembski used to do a lot of work for me before the war. I came in here to collect him more than once.'

A non-committal grunt was all the reply he got.

Russell took a deep breath. 'And now there's a couple of Heydrich's finest camped out in his studio,' he went on more quietly, hoping that he hadn't misjudged his audience. 'Do you know what happened to him?'

The proprietor gave him a long stare. 'Nothing good,' he murmured eventually. 'It's not much of a secret, not around here anyway. The authorities came to call, soon after midnight on Thursday. There were two cars - I saw them from upstairs - I was just getting ready for bed. They just knocked the door down, woke up half the street. I think there were four of them went in - it's hard to see across the street in the blackout, but there was a moon that night. Anyway, there were shots, two of them really close together, and a few minutes later one man came out again and drove off. A van arrived after about half an hour and two bodies were carried out. It was too dark to see who they were, but I'm guessing one of them was Miroslav. He hasn't been seen, and two of the ... two men have been arriving each morning and leaving each night ever since. What are they doing in there?'

Russell shrugged. 'Nothing much that I could see. Asking questions, but I've no idea why. Was Zembski mixed up in anything? Politics, maybe?'

It was a question too far. 'How should I know?' the proprietor said, straightening up to indicate the interview was over. 'He just came in here for coffee, in the days when we used to have some. That and a talk about football.'

All of which left a lot to be desired, Russell thought, walking back up Berlinerstrasse towards the U-Bahn station. Particularly for Zembski, who presumably was dead. But also for himself. His only hope of an illegal escape was apparently gone, and worse: in the unlikely but still conceivable event that Zembski was alive, his own name might be one of those being mentioned in the interrogation. Russell counted the days - more than four had passed, if the café owner's memory was accurate. In the old KPD it had always been assumed that most prisoners, if denied the chance to kill themselves, would eventually break, and the only obligation placed on Party members was to hold out for twenty-four hours, thus giving their comrades a good head start on the inevitable pursuit.

Zembski must be dead, Russell thought, as he descended the stairs to the U-Bahn platform. The Silesian would have given up his grandmother by now, let alone a casual fellow-traveller like himself.

Some certainty wouldn't go amiss, though. Zembski had falsified a passport for him once, and a few months later had helped him get a woman comrade out of the country. She had killed an SS Colonel, but Zembski had not known that. He had known that Russell was in touch with Moscow, but not that the German authorities were aware of those contacts. The potential for confusion was enormous, and Russell earnestly hoped that the Gestapo were suitably confused. They usually liked some semblance of clarity before turning their dogs on a prominent foreigner.

As the U-Bahn train rumbled north he remembered that even the Gestapo were legally obliged to inform a family of a relative's death. Zembski's cousin Hunder, who owned the garage across the river where Russell's car was waiting out the war, might have some definite information.

Russell changed onto the Stadtbahn at Friedrichstrasse, travelled the single stop to Lehrter Station, and made his way through the tangle of streets which lay to the east of the rail yards. The garage office seemed deserted, which was hardly surprising given the virtual cessation of private motoring that had accompanied the Wehrmacht's long, petrol-hungry drive into Russia. The gate hadn't been locked though, and Russell finally found an old mechanic with his head under the bonnet of a Horch in the farthest corner of the yard.

Hunder Zembski had been called up two months ago, the man told him, grimacing as he straightened his body. The Army needed all the mechanics it could get, and being almost fifty hadn't saved his boss. 'You have to be almost ready for burial to get an exemption,' the man said. 'Like me,' he added proudly.

After paying his car a sentimental visit, Russell retraced his steps to Lehrter Station and took the S-Bahn home. Darkness had almost fallen by the time he emerged from Zoo Station, and as he walked the short distance to Effi's apartment on Carmer Strasse a host of invisible hands were pulling and fixing blackout curtains into place on either side of the street.

Their own were already in place - in recent weeks, with both of them working long days, natural light was a weekend luxury. Russell treated himself to a glass of their precious wine, the penultimate bottle of a case which some lust-crazed producer out at Babelsberg had optimistically bestowed on Effi. It tasted slightly sour, a clear sign that they weren't drinking it fast enough.