This powerful novel, titled Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin (Youth on the Road to Berlin) was published in 1932 to much acclaim but was very soon banned by the Nazi regime of WWII. Telling the story of youth gangs, many on the run from the law, welfare or the borstals. By banding together, as one such gang who call themselves the Blood Brothers does, they have a modicum of hope for survival. They are always on the move, always looking for a way to get a few marks for some bread, maybe a sausage and a beer. Then there is the question of where to sleep. Even in the warm summer months sleeping outdoors in parks or what have you is out of the question. The police are constantly monitoring them and moving them along. The winters are brutal and particularly unforgiving. But until these boys turn 21 and thus receive their papers, this is their only way to have any freedom.
Just to have a chance at freedom, they will do desperate things. In one hair-raising passage, Willi has escaped from the borstal and has hopped aboard a transport train, bound for Berlin. Unfortunately, the train is bound for Cologne. Before Willi can panic too much, Franz, a “tramp by trade” says he has a solution. It involves clinging to the axle of the express train to Berlin, clothes turned inside out to keep them relatively clean, with a burlap sack over his head so he’s not toally black with soot when he arrives in the city to try to melt in with the crowd. The cold, the endless fright of losing grip and becoming “cat food” takes its toll but he does make it. The friend he was going to look up for help is gone and he is left to his own devices, starving and cold, bone-tired. By chance he meets Ludwig, whom he new from the borstal and they strike up a conversation. Ludwig offers to bring him to the Blood Brothers, safety in numbers.
The story eventually splits off, detailing how the Blood Brothers, under the tutelage of Fred and Jonny, have become a minor criminal enterprise. Pick pocketing, petty theft, stealing the occasional car. They do well for themselves and always have money in their pockets, warm clean clothes to wear and a dependable place to sleep. Ludwig and Willi don’t want to go that route, want to try to make an “honest” living, which is difficult without papers However they do manage to start up a little business of buy used shoes door to door, refurbishing them and selling them to junk dealers and pawnshops.
Haffner was a journalist and perhaps a social worker (not much is known about him and during WWII he seems to have disappeared). While the book seems to merely report the goings on, the prose is colorful and colloquial, Ludwig, Willi and all the boys are living, breathing beings doing the best they can. Quite a thought-provoking read.