Ruhleben (Italian Edition)

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After this succession of formalities I felt that I had richly earned my permit, but when I applied at the police station in my new district I was told that I must make personal application to the Polizei Presidium Police Presidency in the centre of the city.

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After wandering about in the corridors of che huge rambling building of the Police Presidency I at last came to a door on which was affixed a label, " Eng- lander," and I noticed that the adjacent doors were labelled " Franzosen," " Russen," and " Belgier ' respectively. The room that I entered was occupied by half a dozen men who apparently had nothing more serious to do than to bandy jokes with one another. The man at the head of the table asked me my business, and when I demanded a permit to stay in Berlin, he asked me my name, age, and occupation.

Upon stating that I was a journalist, he replied, as though he had made a neat capture : " Aha! We shan't let you go! The latter, a portly individual, with a gruff voice, said to me : " Come along with me! I began to scent trouble, and as we passed along corridors and descended flights of stairs, I asked my escort whither he was taking me. Can I not see somebody in authority and explain the position?

Presently we came to a little door which was opened by a prison warder, and before I could recover my breath, the official handed me over into custody with his written authorisa- tion, and disappeared. The warder then thrust into my hands a small bundle of prison laundry — blue-checked sheets, tattered towel and jagged comb — and bade me follow him upstairs. We went along the corridor, he unlocked a small cell, and he bade me enter. For the moment I was quite aghast : it was my first introduction to a prison cell.

I took the jug and placed it outside the door, when another warder, farther along the corridor, called out : " There is room for another in my cell. He had lived for the past sixteen years in South Africa, where he had become naturalised, and then, at the end of June, , started on a trip to Europe in order to visit his mother in Russia. He arrived in Berlin on August 1st, and could go neither forward nor backward, so stayed at an hotel in Unter den Linden, where, on the morning after England's declaration of war, he was arrested.

His com- panion was a young Russian medical student, who had been attending lectures at the Berlin University, and during the few weeks of their common captivity they had become close friends. He was here this morning, but won't be here again till next Tuesday.

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    It was a clean, bright, white-painted room, with one window that looked down upon a courtyard. There were four small wooden racks affixed to the wall, each of which con- tained an earthenware bowl for soup, a white mug for coffee, a plate, spoon, knife, salt cellar, washing-basin, soap, a German New Testament and Prayer Book, as well as a printed booklet of prison regulations. There was also a pictorial design showing the exact relative positions in which all these objects should be placed, and giving a different position for the mattresses and bolster for each day of the month.

    Fortunately, there was a water-tap and sink in the cell — and an adjoining water-closet. My fellow-prisoners lent me paper and envelopes, and I scribbled off some letters to a few friends. Then one of them pushed a little projecting rod in the wall, I heard a click, and presently the door was unbolted and unlocked, and the warder took my letters and withdrew. They explained to me that the pushing of the little rod caused a small red flag of iron to protrude outside, and this attracted the warder's attention.

    The Poet of Ruhleben

    The device was almost as ingenious as an electric bell. It was midday when I was put into the cell, and as I had breakfasted at eight o'clock that morning I was hungry. But the prison " dinner " had already been served at eleven, and the next meal would not arrive until half-past four.

    Nor could I order anything that day from outside, as all such orders had to be given by nine o'clock. So my fellow-prisoners placed their stock of bread and cheese at my disposal, which I washed down with cold water. At three o'clock I heard the cells in our corridor being un- locked and unbolted again ; gradually the noise approached our own cell ; and I felt a sensation of profound relief when the door was thrown open and I was told we could go down into the courtyard for an hour's exercise. When I reached the yard I was surprised at the great number of prisoners who were walking about, mostly in groups of twos and threes.

    There were about a hundred and fifty altogether ; two-thirds Englishmen, the rest Russians, Frenchmen, and Belgians, and they were mostly between the ages of twenty and forty.

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    I found among them an old London fellow-student, who had been a teacher of languages in Berlin, and who told me that he and most of the Englishmen had been there since the 5th of August. Suddenly a couple of policemen appeared, drew their revolvers, declared that we were prisoners of war, and threatened to shoot any man who attempted to leave. The Consul had left the night before.

    Administrative / Biographical History

    Presently a ' Black Maria ' drew up, and we were removed in it to the Polizei Prasidium, where we were put through a regular catechism. Those whose answers were satis- factory were given a written permit to stay in Berlin, and have to report themselves every three days to the police. The rest of us were brought here. I have tried to get myself bailed out, but without success.

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    Some were playing cards on stools which they had brought down with them ; others were playing chess ; some were throwing a ball about ; whilst most of them were strolling round and round the small quadrangle and chat- ting in various languages. One or two Russians had already begun to teach their language in exchange for English. From the courtyard we could see nothing of the outside world, though we could distinctly hear the clanging of electric tramcars and the myriad sounds of the tumultuous traffic, for we were surrounded by a six-storied building.

    All that we saw were red brick walls and barred windows. The prisoners were drawn from various professions — engineers, chemists, teachers, clerks, jockeys, students, variety artists — and presented a number of contrasted types. There was also among them an American negro, who, in his cups, had wished the Kaiser to a place from where he would have been unable to direct the military operations. When the hour was over, a warder, with a huge bunch of keys, appeared beneath the arch which formed the opening to the courtyard, and we began to stream leisurely back up the stone stairs to our respective cells, which were situated on different floors.

    As I passed along the corridor I noticed that on each door there was a slip of paper with the letter E, R, F, or B, according as the cell contained an Englishman, Russian, French- man, or Belgian, whilst in the case of cells with several inmates there was a corresponding figure before the letter. Locked in my cell once more, I discussed with my fellow- prisoners the cases of some of the other men confined in this jail, and was amazed to hear of the brutality to which some of them had been exposed before they were brought to the " Stadtvogtei.

    Here you can get anything you want, if you pay for it, except your liberty. I followed the example of my fellow-prisoners and presented my bowl for a portion. After the warder had locked the door again, I sat down to my repast, but though I tried to swallow two or three spoonfuls of the stuff I had to give it up : it was a sticky, indigestible species of " skilly," which my comrades by dint of practice succeeded in getting down.

    For me there was nothing left but to throw the stuff into a bucket and clean my bowl under the tap. I then helped myself to more bread and cheese, washed down again with water. We spent the evening, partly in discussing one another's prospects of liberation, and partly in playing draughts. We had neither draughtboard nor pieces, but the Russian student, who smoked cigarettes incessantly, quickly designed a board on the inside cover of an exercise-book, and we made pieces out of a cardboard cigarette-box.

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    The South African was very restless and depressed, strutting up and down the cell with downcast chin and hands in his pockets, and jumping up every now and again on to his bed, on which he sat with dangling legs and speculated how long the war would last. We had an electric light in our room and were allowed to enjoy the benefit of it until nine o'clock.

    But five minutes before that hour we had all got into our respective beds, awaiting the foot- step of the warder who switched off the light.

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    We continued talking for some time until my comrades fell asleep, but I re- mained awake for hours. I occupied a lower bed, and the mattress was as hard as the table. Throughout the night I heard the slow, stealthy pacing of the warder in the corridor, and felt a peculiar sensation whenever he stopped at our door, lifted the disc over the peep- hole, and peered into the darkness of our cell.

    The following morning, at half-past six, our door was unlocked again, and we rose and washed. Half an hour later a couple of Polish convicts brought in a pail of brownish liquid, which they called "kawa" coffee , and another came with a basket containing chunks of brown bread, or "chleb," as he called it. I found it difficult to believe that the liquid was coffee, for there was not even the most remote family resemblance.

    I could detect no milk and trace no sugar.

    The prisoners of Ruhleben

    But it was something hot, and one was grateful even for that. Then a warder came round to take orders, and I put myself down for some butter, cheese, sausage, and beer, besides a shilling dinner from a neighbouring restaurant. At nine o'clock we again trooped out of our cells down into the yard, where I extended my acquaintance with my fellow- prisoners. Some told me that they had originally possessed the police permit to live in Berlin, but had omitted one day to report themselves at the police station, and were arrested the following morning while in bed.

    Others had been denounced by German neighbours or fellow-lodgers as spies. There was a Russian student who had once been released from this prison ; but in an unguarded moment he said something indiscreet to his land- lady and her daughter, with the result that an hour later two police officials arrested him in his room, placed him in a dark cell overnight in a local prison, and then brought him back to the " Stadtvogtei. Soon after we were back again in our cell the warder brought a big basket with our orders, and ticked off the articles on his list as he handed them out. We paid him a little beyond the due amount, and I calculated that he must be making quite a respectable income out of tips. Did you ever hear of anything so annoying?

    So he at once sent off a letter to his uncle, in whose large business-house he was em- ployed.

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    Having already been in the jail twenty-four hours I felt like an old stager, and initiated the youngster into the various arrangements and regulations ; and when he had com- pletely recovered from his surprise he pulled out a pack of cards and began to perform a number of tricks. The restaurant dinner of three courses, which I soon received, was very welcome after the frugal fare on which I had been living, although the soup was quite cold. The hours dragged on like days, the days like weeks. On the evening of the day after his arrival our young friend was released.

    We were engaged in a quiet game of " vingt et un" when suddenly the heavy bolts were pushed aside, the door was unlocked, and the head warder, with grizzled beard, beckoned in the direction of the youngster and said : " The hour has struck. You are free. At length the morning arrived when the representative of the Royal Prussian War Office paid his visit to the prison, to listen to personal petitions for release. I was told that he could only see about twelve or fifteen men each time, as his stay was limited, and it was therefore advisable to get as near as possible to the top of the line of waiting applicants.

    Fortunately, I secured an early place, and I waited impatiently and hopefully. My turn came, and I entered a small room, in which was seated a military officer, clean-shaven and ascetic-looking, with high red collar and shining brass buttons on his blue tunic. He bowed slightly as he beckoned me to a chair. I also produced a reader's card of the Royal Prussian Library — the " British Museum " of Berlin — and a letter from my American publisher, as proof of my literary activity and harmless character.

    He fumbled among his papers, and then, after some hesitation, said : " We are rather strict with Englishmen, but I shall let you go this time. But don't say anything about it outside, or you may find yourself here again. I shall give you a permit with which you must go straight to the police station in your district, and then you must present yourself there with it every third day. A warder examined my permit and showed me down the stairs into the street, and as I slipped a coin into his palm I drew a deep breath of relief. The following day all who were still in the prison were transferred to the Ruhleben Concentration Camp.

    MY four days' imprisonment had made a profound im- pression upon me. It was the most singular adventure that I had ever experienced, and I relished my newly gained liberty so keenly that I felt inclined to ask the staid old gentleman who sat next to me in the tram that bore me home- wards whether he had ever been in prison too, and how he had liked to be at liberty again. But the parting warning of the military officer acted as a curb upon my loquacity, and I kept my secret to myself.