Tedium!

“The roof tiles are here, take your places on the steps.” Oh not again we thought; why all this nonsense? We work all day to get the heavy brick tiles up to the roof of the apartment building, and tomorrow morning, after an air raid, they probably will all be in small pieces on the ground. But we had to do it.

This time I got a place on the steps between the third and fourth floor, and soon it began. Grab two tiles from the fellow below you, turn half a circle and pass them to the next in line. Grab, turn, pass; grab, turn, pass. So it went for hours and hours ad infinitum.

We started to sing:

“tedium, tedium you my great pleasure,
tedium, tedium you my great joy;
were there no tedium there would be no pleasure,
were there no tedium there would be no joy.”

Once in a while one of us had to leave for a short time creating a gap in the line, but this hardly affected our rhythm. Those next to the gap simply had to take a few steps when receiving or passing the tiles. To carry on a coherent conversation was next to impossible, since one constantly had to swivel from side to side.

Some of the older ones among us imagined what they would like to eat after the war and began to recite elaborate menus. Ragout fin, tenderloin Chateaubriand, beef Wellington; we younger ones had never even heard of such dishes. Our minds were set more on generous portions of things like hamburgers, fried potatoes, or macaroni and cheese. And the various varieties of wines that were mentioned were complete enigmas to us. The only wine we had tasted so far was the ones used for Sabbath and holiday blessings.

Through all the tedium you had to be alert, since you did not want to drop the tiles on your toes and certainly not on the toes of the ones next to you. At times work was interrupted by an air raid warning, followed about half of the time by an actual air raid. We rushed down to the basement hoping — it seems almost grotesque in retrospect — that some bombs falling into the neighborhood would undo everything we had just accomplished.

Passing of roof tiles, while certainly mind-numbing, was actually not a bad assignment. Thanks to a decent overseer — a petty criminal before the war — the pace was sensible, and the work as such was physically less demanding and far less dangerous than some of the other tasks we had performed.

Written by Fritz Gluckstein as a part of the Museum’s Memory Project.

Fritz Gluckstein, from Berlin, Germany, managed despite several arrests to survive in Berlin throughout the war because his mother was not Jewish.