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  • The siren -- a mushroom-shaped structure on top of the elementary school across our street -- had gone off again; Allied bomber planes were expected to pass our way. My father took me down the wooden stairs into the basement with his good hand. The stairs had a railing on one side, that I held on to -- a long bean-pole bolted to the wall of the staircase. I was four years old, and could barely reach the pole. It had been painted many times, so its surface felt smooth and knobby to my hand gliding over it. The rest of the family followed. I could distinguish the people by the sounds of their steps: first the fast tripping steps of my sister and brother, putting on a race in the narrow space, then the sound of my mother’s sturdy half-high heels, click-cluck, then, last, my grandmother’s slow tap-tapping of her high-laced black shoes.

    The basement was freezing-cold. We cuddled up in front of an electric heater, a metal box with spiral wires wound around three horizontal ceramic cylinders that made ghostly noises when they were heating up: wires scratching the ceramic core as they expanded. Grandma invited me to sit on her lap. When the heater had turned bright-red, I pointed my finger at the slanted pieces of glowing wire that seemed to wiggle in the dark.

    “Heinzelmaennchen!” I shouted. “The Little People!” My mother smiled at my father and said,

    “Did you hear that, Wilhem, he sees Heinzelmaennchen in that heater there?”

    In German lore, the Heinzelmaennchen were friendly gnomes, based in Cologne, who came at night on tiptoes to do the chores that were left undone. They only came to the homes of good-hearted people, and wore red Zipfelmuetzen, red pointed hats.

    I wanted to sit there forever on my grandma’s lap, to watch my little red-hatted friends, but then, unfortunately, the siren went off three times, indicating the alarm had been cleared. The enemy planes never materialized. My grandmother took me off her lap, my father switched the heater off with his good hand before I could say good-bye to my little orange friends, and ushered us all back upstairs.

    But then, on another day, as we rushed again downstairs, and I discovered I could please the grownups again by pointing at the red-hot wires and shouting the magic word, the planes arrived with a roar, making the earth shake. They were gone as quickly as they had come. The all-clear signal was sounded, and as we went upstairs and opened the front door, we saw the neighbor’s house in flames. It looked as though the whole world was on fire.

    And the Heinzelmaennchen? The ones who were supposed to help the good people? They were nowhere to be seen.

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