In the prison reception office I was left in the company of two of the gods of nazidom, their coarse proletarian features ruthlessly exemplified by the photographer’s science. From their place of vantage on the wall they glared down upon two assiduous pen-pushers and an old man in the uniform of a chief warder.
After a little while the old man said to me –
“You’re English, aren’t you?”
I nodded and asked in my turn –
“You’re German, aren’t you?”
“Naturally,” said the old man. I saw the two clerks glance at each other, as much to say: This fellow’s simple in the head. Oh ho! Just another coming out with the mind turned to addled eggs. We’ve seen plenty of them. Ah, ha! And the more the merrier. Heil Hitler! Adolf Hitler Unser Führer! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!
I stayed quiet for a little while, and then, indicating one of the photographs hanging upon the wall, asked –
“Who may that be?”
The whole assembly – the two clerks and the old man – glared at me in astonishment, looked at each other, and then shouted with one voice –
“Adolf Hitler, of course.”
“Oh! And who may he be?” I asked.
They did not quite know whether to be angry or to humour an imbecile. They decided on a compromise; thumped their fists on their ledgers and cried –
“Fool! The Leader (Der Führer). You must know that.”
“Why? I don’t see why I should know that. . . . But I understand now. He’s a man who’s wanted, that’s right? A man you want!”
“Wanted! Wanted! Of course he’s wanted. Not alone by us, but the whole of Germany.”
This delivered not quite so vociferously.
“As bad as all that. Nanu! What’s he done? . . . Who has he tricked (verführt)? . . . All Germany?” I asked.
“He’s tricked nobody. You’re mad. You must be mad. You don’t know what you’re saying.” And the two clerks joined the old man in front of me, and they all waved their stumpy little fingers at me – the old man’s stained with tobacco, the clerks’ with ink. I laughed inside – I was enjoying myself in a childish way.
“Well, why is he wanted? . . . Why hang his picture in a police office? . . . Why tell me he’s a swindler, corrupter (Verführer)?”
“Lies! Lies! Lies! Nobody called him so.” And each turned to the other for confirmation, in their gregarious fashion – the fashion of all canaille. “Nobody said such a thing. Lies! Leader, we said. The Leader, not misleader (Der Führer nicht Verführer).”
“Oh, I see now – he’s a political leader.”
“Of course, but you must know his picture.”
Good God! How well I knew it! But I said –
“Well, as a matter of fact it does seem quite familiar. But after all, my mistake was quite an understandable one.”
“How so understandable? How so?”
“Well! A police office – a picture – obviously the picture of a wanted criminal. Don’t you see? That’s what they do in my country.”
“Oh, no!” They assured me quite seriously.
“Oh, no. In this office we hang up the picture of our Leaders – Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler.”
“Well, it’s much the same as in the police office of my country, except that you do more. You swot two flies with one blow, all said and done.”
“Quite.” They all agreed smugly; but it took fully a minute for the import of my remark to penetrate their humourless wits. It might have been a well-rehearsed act, when with one scream they demanded –
“What do you mean? What do you mean?”
I shrugged my shoulders, and at that moment the two police arrived who were to take me in escort.
The old man received the two constables with the habitual “Heil Hitler!” and then got on with the formalities of my transfer, while I chuckled within myself over the interrupted conversation. For a few moments I indulged the self-complacence of a precocious child.
I could hear the conversation at the desk, but listened only with half-interest, till suddenly, like black night, came one solitary word to eclipse not only my recent hilarity but all the sanguine paradise of hope in which I had basked for the last two days –
“. . . Vollstreckung . . .” The word that every prisoner knew foretold his end. Vollstreckung – execution! “. . . proceeding to Brandenburg for execution of sentence. . . .” It was all quite clear now. So that was that. Gone my dreams!