Bestselling author David Downing’s Diary of a Dead Man on Leave is one of the most anticipated novels coming out this spring.
Downing is a master of historical espionage, and in Diary he presents a heart-wrenching depiction of Germany in the days leading up to World War II and the difficult choices of one man of conviction.
The story begins in April 1938. A man calling himself Josef Hofmann arrives at a boarding house in Hamm, Germany, and lets a room from the widow who owns it. Fifty years later, Walter Gersdorff, the widow’s son, who was eleven years old in the spring of 1938, discovers the carefully hidden diary the boarder had kept during his stay, even though he should never have written any of its contents down.
What Walter finds is a scathing chronicle of one the most tumultuous years in German history, narrated by a secret agent on a deadly mission. Josef Hofmann was not the returned Argentinian immigrant he’d said he was—he was a communist spy under Moscow’s command to try to reconnect with any remnants of Germany’s suppressed communist party. Hofmann’s bosses believe the common workers are the only way to stop the German war machine from within. Posing as a railroad man, Hofmann sets out on his game of “Russian roulette,” approaching Hamm’s ex-party members one at a time and delicately feeling out their allegiances. He always knew his mission would most likely end in his death, and he was satisfied to make that sacrifice for the revolution if it could help stop Hitler and his abominable ideology. But as he grows close to the Gersdorffs, accidentally stepping into the role of the father Walter never had, Hofmann begins to wish for another kind of hope in his life.
David Downing grew up in suburban London. He is the author of six books in the John Russell espionage series, set in WWII Berlin: Zoo Station, Silesian Station, Stettin Station, Potsdam Station, Lehrter Station, and Masaryk Station and the nonfiction work, Sealing Their Fate: The Twenty-Two Days That Decided World War II. He lives with his wife in Guildford, England.
“[Downing] is a master at bringing the past to life through the careful and often loving observation of even minor players and through the artful deployment of specific detail.” –Wall Street Journal
Saturday, April 23
It is almost midnight. I am sitting at a small table by an open window, in the north German town of Hamm, writing these first lines. The rest of the house is quiet, but voices rise and fall on the street below, some talking quietly, others loud with drink and the end of a working week.
It’s now been almost twenty-eight hours since I boarded the overnight train in Rotterdam. The papers I acquired in New York passed inspection at the German frontier; in Cologne, where I changed trains; and at the ticket barrier in Hamm. I took a cab from the station to the district surrounding the railway yards, intending to ask after lodgings in as many bars as I had to, and struck lucky at the first—one of the barmen knew a place nearby where someone had just moved out.
It was a large house on a T-junction corner, probably a manager’s house in prewar days, when managers still lived among the workers. A canal ran parallel with the upper arm of the T, and beyond that the freight yards stretched away under a haze of smoke. A small Nazi flag hung limply over the front door.
A boy of around eleven or twelve answered my knock. I asked for Frau Gersdorff, the name I’d been given at the bar, and he stood and stared at me for a few seconds, as if he had trouble understanding. “My mother,” he said eventually. “I’ll fetch her.” Halfway down the hall he stopped, turned, and told me with great seriousness that his name was Walter, as if it was really important that I knew who he was.
He reappeared a few moments later with a harassed-looking blonde woman in her late thirties or early forties. I introduced myself as Josef Hofmann and agreed to the rent and terms that she briskly outlined. Seeing in my papers that I’d only recently arrived in Germany, she asked where I’d been, and when I said Argentina, she gave me a look that mingled surprise and suspicion in roughly equal measure. I told her it seemed like a good time to return to the fatherland. “Of course,” she murmured, but her eyes said: “What an idiot!”
She took me up to the vacant room, a large, airy attic with a fine view of the distant hills to the south. Away to the right I could see the railway yards where I was expecting to find work.
I said it would do. Frau Gersdorff told me that the guests’ bathroom was on the first floor and that supper was served at six-thirty, breakfast at seven. Walter watched from the doorway, and when his mother left, I got the feeling it was only her gentle push that prevented him from staying.
I unpacked my suitcase, visited the bathroom, and made my way downstairs in search of the promised supper. There I met the first of three—as I later discovered—other lodgers. This one, a thin man of average height with short black hair, sunken eyes, sucked-in cheeks, and a thick black mustache hanging over a small mouth, introduced himself as Aksel Ruchay. He was wearing an immaculate Reichsbahn uniform, which—as my father would have said—suggested that he rarely went near an actual train. The small enamel swastika in his lapel matched the Völkischer Beobachter in his lap.
A second lodger appeared almost immediately. He was probably five years older than Ruchay but seemed much less sure of himself. He was a short man, slightly overweight, with hair thinning at the front over a worried but kindly face. He checked his hands before shaking mine, the sure sign of a workingman. His name, he said, was Jakob Barufka.
Supper was being served by the time the final lodger appeared, a young man with slicked-back blond hair in his mid to late twenties. After apologizing to Frau Gersdorff for his late arrival, he told me his name was Rolf Gerritzen, and volunteered the information that he worked as a junior manager at Islacker Wire and Cable. He too wore a Nazi pin in his lapel, mostly, I suspect, because he prefers to swim with the tide. He ate his sausage, cabbage, and potatoes twice as fast as anyone else and seemed incapable of sitting still in his chair between courses.
As we devoured our apple-cake dessert, I told the three of them where I’d supposedly come from and why, and that I was hoping to get an administrative job on the railway. Ruchay nodded sagely when I said I had thought it a good time to return to Germany, and Gerritzen could hardly contain his enthusiasm for the Reich’s future. Both Ruchay and Barufka confirmed the party’s information that the Reichsbahn, like every other sector of the Reich’s economy, is experiencing acute labor shortages—they were sure I would have no problem finding a job. “Success breeds its own difficulties,” Ruchay murmured wisely, which prompted another panegyric from Gerritzen. It was ridiculous, but I found myself rather liking the young man. I told myself that in any other time and place, he’d just be another decent young man with more energy than he knew what to do with.
There were others in the house. I heard Frau Gersdorff talking to someone in the kitchen, and while sitting at the table, I saw a tray being carried down the corridor that leads to the rear. A short while later a young man came in through the front door and disappeared into that part of the house. After Ruchay and Gerritzen had left—the one to his room, the other to the cinema with his sweetheart—Barufka filled me in. The cook’s name was Verena; she lived a few streets away. Later I saw her leave, a pretty, dark-haired woman in her late thirties. The tray was for Anna’s—Frau Gersdorff’s, Barufka corrected himself—blind and bedridden father, who lived in one of the rooms at the back. The young man was her elder son, Erich, who was a “bit wild” but nice enough when you got to know him.
I reserved judgment on all of this: Barufka, I already suspected, was one of those people who tends to see the best in others, and sometimes only the best. He told me some of his own life story over the course of the next couple of hours: four years on the western front as a gunner, the railways ever since, a marriage that had failed soon after his return from the war. He had a grown-up married son in Hamburg whom he greatly loved but rarely saw. Since his divorce he had lived in lodgings, saving money, which he sent to his son. Barufka thought Anna—Frau Gersdorff, he corrected himself again—ran a very good lodging. He was, I realized, more than a little in love with her.
He asked me about my life, and I gave him the official version, the facts of service on the eastern front sliding into the fiction of a career in Argentina. He was interested in the latter, and I talked with some authority about the wonders of Buenos Aires and the Pampas, taking care not to mention my brief acquaintance with the prison system and deportation process.
At a minute to nine, Ruchay reappeared, and turned on the lounge wireless for what was obviously a ritual hearing of the news. When the reader announced, with barely suppressed excitement, that Czechoslovakia’s Sudeten Germans had demanded full autonomy, Ruchay’s face seemed to light up, and I felt obliged to force a smile of satisfaction to my own lips. It is still hardly a month since Austria was gobbled up by the Reich. The slide into war is gathering speed.
After the news everyone retired to their rooms. Frau Gersdorff hadn’t appeared since supper, but Walter was loitering on the first-floor landing, idly kicking the foot of the stairwell bannister. “How many days did the boat take from Argentina?” he asked.
“Twenty-two,” I told him, erring on the plus side.
“What was the name of the ship?” he wanted to know.
“The Antilla,” I said, adding that it was a Dutch freighter, not an ocean liner.
“Oh,” he said, clearly disappointed.
“It was cheaper,” I explained, and he smiled for the first time.
For a moment neither of us spoke, and then just as I was lifting my foot onto the second flight of steps, he suddenly said, “We can be friends, can’t we?”
I told him I didn’t see why not.
He smiled again, said good night, and half tumbled down the stairs.
I suppose I should describe my room.
There is an old but comfortable bed, a cupboard and chest of drawers, and a small table beside the window at which I am now writing this. There is a fraying but serviceable armchair and a basin for water on the chest, and two ill-matched rugs cover most of the wooden floorboards. The wallpaper has almost faded to a uniform cream color, which goes quite well with the green paintwork on the door and window. When compared to most of the several hundred other rooms I have occupied in the course of the last twenty years, this one feels almost bourgeois.
In my room I sat by the window for a while, listening to the irregular clanking of freight cars in the floodlit yard, watching the occasional express steam by on the main lines beyond. I hadn’t had any sleep for thirty-six hours, but I still felt wide awake. I’m not sure where the idea for this journal came from. On the train from Rotterdam, I had this strange feeling of too many memories clamoring for attention, begging for some sort of context and order. I bought the notebook in a stationer’s opposite Cologne Cathedral, thinking I might write down a few, but not with any more definite purpose in mind.
Most of my comrades—not to mention my superiors—would find such a failure of discipline impossible to condone. They would consider it criminally reckless, and in most situations they would surely be right. They would say that it reflects an unhealthy level of interest in one’s own individual thought processes, and there’s probably more than a grain of truth in that as well. But then again, why should the bourgeoisie have a monopoly on self-reflection? I think I’m writing this because of an almost irresistible desire, after twenty years of living with history’s truth, to immerse myself in the ordinary, day-to-day kind. And I think I’ve earned the right to this minor self-indulgence, always assuming it doesn’t compromise my work.
There, of course, is the rub. I don’t have the right to risk other comrades or to jeopardize the mission. I shall have to minimize the chances of the journal ever being found—not a straightforward task in a single room, but one that my father’s tuition in joinery makes that much easier. I have already selected one space for concealment inside the window frame that will hold both the journal and my emergency supply of gold coins. A second, more obvious cache under the floorboards for a dummy journal seeded with meaningless names, times and dates should satisfy all but the most rigorous of searchers.
If I sound as if I’m trying to convince myself, perhaps it’s because I am. Obfuscations always give clues, and no place is immune to discovery. There will be risks, to others as well as myself, and all I can promise is to make them as small as I can. Small enough, I hope, to balance out this compulsion I feel to make sense of my past and present by putting them down on paper.