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The Willow Wren

A Novel

Philipp Schott



Definition of Willow Wren


Part One

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Part Two

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Part Three

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two

Chapter Forty-Three

Chapter Forty-Four

Chapter Forty-Five

Chapter Forty-Six

Chapter Forty-Seven

Chapter Forty-Eight

Chapter Forty-Nine

Chapter Fifty

Chapter Fifty-One

Chapter Fifty-Two

Chapter Fifty-Three

Chapter Fifty-Four


Acknowledgements & Author’s Note

About the Author



For my father, Ludwig Schott (1934–1994)

Definition of Willow Wren

Willow wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) — Very small, solitary, nondescript bird. Scarce. Found in cool, dense undergrowth of conifers in summer. Quirky. Moves mouse-like on the forest floor. Nests in snug burrows. Proud, very vocal, active, but furtive. Also known as the Eurasian wren, winter wren, northern wren and der Zaunkönig (the Fence King) in German.


Based on a true story

Part One

The past beats inside me like a second heart.

— John Banville, The Sea

Chapter One

February 20, 1944

This memory stands out above many others. A glinting nickel in a fistful of pennies. I can feel my mother’s hand gripping mine, a thin leather glove squeezing my thick woolen mitten, squeezing it maybe a little too tightly. And I can smell the smoke — sharp and somehow metallic — mixed with the dry smell of powdery cement dust and the tang of brown coal fires and something else that I didn’t recognize at that age, something charred. I did not like the smells.

But this is principally a visual memory. The picture is detailed and clear in my mind’s eye, like a large format photograph taken by an expensive camera. The front of our three-storey building had been neatly peeled off, as if by an enormous can opener wielded by a fairy-tale giant. The only evidence that there had ever been an outside wall was the still lightly smoking pile of debris on the street out front. But then debris was everywhere in the city, so it was difficult to connect this particular debris to the wall that had once defined the outer limit of our domestic life. It was more as if the wall had magically vanished or had been excised and carried off.

We stood and stared, wordlessly, just staring. Bomb damage was not surprising given the air raid the night before — we’d seen plenty enough of it as we hurried from the train station — but what was surprising was the precision. The wall was gone, but just a metre beyond it the interior was absolutely intact. Nothing was out of place. No chairs had been knocked over. The paintings on the walls still hung straight. We were looking into our living room as if into a life-sized doll’s house.

This doll’s house impression was so strong that it distorted my sense of perspective. I remember suddenly feeling very small, as if my mother and I had been shrunk to doll size. I longed to grow to my full ten-year-old boy size again so that I could reach into the living room and delicately pick up a wooden chair between my thumb and forefinger. I even made the pinching motion inside my mitten with my free hand.

“Where is Papa going to sleep now?” I asked, when I finally found a way to make words.

“Don’t worry. The Party will find something for him.”

I nodded solemnly in response, trying to visualize Papa sleeping on top of his desk, papers pushed aside, a blanket and pillow brought by an aide. He had one rigid leg, the result of tuberculosis in his knee when he was a child, so my mental picture showed that leg sticking out from the end of the desk while the other one was tucked up.

“He’s an important man, your papa.” She said this flatly.

“Shall we go to his office now, Mama? Is that where he is?”

“Yes, I suppose that makes sense. I’m sure he’s very busy dealing with this, but since we’ve come all this way, and you got special permission to leave the camp.” The whole family, except Papa, had been evacuated from the city. I was in a Hitler Youth camp, very much against my liking, and Mama was with her sister in Mellingen, also somewhat against her liking.

Just then an older teenager came rapidly peddling up the street on a bicycle, weaving amongst the piles of rubble. He was tall and very pale, with black hair slicked back above a high acne pockmarked forehead. His dark grey uniform was slightly too small for his long thin arms and legs. I recognized him from Papa’s Ortsgruppe office, although I did not have reason to know his name yet. Later I would find out it was Erich. I remember being envious of his bicycle, as it was a relatively new dark red Kalkhoff. But honestly I would have been happy with any bicycle.

Erich waved to us frantically when he spotted us.

“Heil Hitler, Frau Schott!” Erich’s right arm shot up as he rolled to a stop.

“Yes?” Mama’s arms remained at her side. My mother was a solid and serious-looking woman. She was not large, but with her strong voice and her ability to wield an unblinking stare she certainly could be intimidating. That day she wore a very businesslike tan-coloured suit and had her hair pulled back severely in a tight bun.

Erich swallowed and blinked several times before continuing. “Ortsgruppenleiter Schott sends his regards and he also sends his regrets that he was unable to meet you at the train station or here at your home.” He paused for a response, but as there was none he went on, “As you can see the enemy attacked again with many bombers. It began at 3:15 this morning. Leipzig Connewitz was especially heavily hit. There are hundreds dead. Killed where they slept.” He stopped again, perhaps realizing that he was striking the wrong note. “But of course our Luftwaffe shot most of them down before they could do even more damage. So I am sure they have learned their lesson.”


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