As loyalties swayed from France to Germany and almost tiptoed away from both, the residents of Kellersdorff hid their wine, their jewelry and sometimes whole families in the deep, winding gallery of cellars below their hamlet by the Argent River. They were nearly oblivious to the city of Strasbourg, with its pointed finger of a cathedral rising just two kilometers away, their loyalties lying far down in the keller, the hidden network of municipal basements.
Named at some point in its Germanic past for its cellars of unknown origin, Kellersdorff became Saint Charles-sur-Argent during one of several purposeful attempts to Frenchify place names between wars. When German boots pounded through once again the village reclaimed the Kellersdorff appellation for nearly 50 years. By the time the pocket by the river bend went French again, the residents were in agreement that both identities belonged to them, so the area became officially known as Kellersdorff-Saint-Charles-sur-Argent.
A relatively quick burst of German re-occupation and the subsequent return to the Gauls required the town to rise from the charred remains as Kellersdorff-Saint-Charles-sur-Argent-le-Neuf, meaning ‘the new town on the river’. The community’s name and history had become so unwieldy that the locals finally resorted to calling their home Saint Kell.
Some said the Arbogasts of St. Kell had descended directly from Mithras, who himself was born from a rock and was forced underground throughout Europe by Christian crusaders. What everyone agreed upon was that the Arbogast name was synonymous with loyalty. The story goes that in 1890 the sprawling Arbogast family of Niedergass was hidden for two years in the cellars of St. Kell while the 200-odd aboveground residents agreed to tell Kaiser Wilhelm’s men that the whole offensive family was vacationing in Italy. Apparently, a cohort of brothers calling themselves Arbogasts and accustomed to protection from St. Kell, had snuck into his palace to do an unspecified, but great, disservice to the Prussian’s ego during one of his stays in Strasbourg. Rather than identify the offenders, the villagers of St. Kell preferred feigning confusion and claimed to all be named Arbogast.
Strasbourg was evacuated under Nazi pressure in 1939, but most of St. Kell was reluctant to leave, preferring instead to stock their cellars and hunker down. During the occupation in 1940, the mayor of St. Kell held an emergency meeting in the main keller below Niedergass and warned of a different kind of hiding. The army would be coming for one of the families in St. Kell, bringing them to the Strasbourg Synagogue. Stories from surrounding villages told him the family would only leave the re-purposed place of worship as smoke. But rather than stowing the family like wine, their fellow residents would hide them in plain view. Everyone from St. Kell was asked to bring their identification documents to the keller below. Anything they could find with their names – birth, employment, property and religious documentation – was to be brought down. The mayor’s office was temporarily moved underground where teams worked in shifts to produce the new identities. When all was said and done, the people emerged from the keller, baptized by the dark with their new names. In October of 1940 all 426 residents of St. Kell bore the name Arbogast. The German army largely ignored the little pocket of St. Kell, and river Argent kept flowing, determined like the residents were to live as normally as possible in times of turpitude.
By the 1960s, there were still a few Arbogasts left, but most had reclaimed their names from the cellars when the Assembly of Europe set up its headquarters in Strasbourg and convinced both France and Germany that wars were better suited to other regions of the globe. A sweeping planned community, financed by the city of Strasbourg, was to be installed in St. Kell in the early 70s, bringing in detached houses filled with people that were presumably not named Arbogast, and a group of tower blocks for government-subsidized housing.
The new St. Kell would be an urban utopia, modeled after a Bavarian architect’s vision of the ideal city, and the whole network of streets bearing artist’s names sprang up in three years. Michelagelo, Titian, Goya, Raphael. Colossal villas with broad, landscaped yards reminiscent of American suburbs perched along the Argent. Wealthy hedonists moved in and shamelessly raced their German cars down Niedergass, tearing down to the river to swill Reisling and play absurdly jovial accordion music.
In 1978, Céline and Arnaud Arbogast could hear the parties from the river dwellers blocks away from their home on Niedergass, the street lined with houses from another era and the remains of ancestral farms that now lived to the soundtrack of a loud freeway just behind it. Mamama, Arnaud’s thrice-widowed mother and undisputed head of the family, said she’d rather go bury herself in the now bricked-off cellars than leave. “Ich bin Ofira Arbogast von Kellersdorff-Saint-Charles-sur-Argent-le-Neuf. I didn’t leave for the Germans and I’m not leaving for a bunch of smelly diesels.” And so, the Arbogasts stayed.
For being so close to Strasbourg, St. Kell was cut off from the rest of the city by railroad tracks and nearly encircled by the bend in the river. The ugly towers rising in the backdrop and the climbing degrees of debauchery by the river rich started to make the Arbogasts feel trapped in a no-man’s land. After centuries of inertia, the world had changed around them and their one-street old town left them sandwiched between rivaled vices. While the big game hunters and Assembly workers wanted to pickle themselves underground, young and aimless sons of immigrants pushed hash in pastel tracksuits.
The blocks of tower housing rose successively higher and as they reached 15 floors, the view of the villas on the river improved, adding jealousy to the burden of unemployment for the residents of Utopia. They resented the cars, the noise and the lawns. They eventually started to make their own noise and carve out their own identity in St. Kell. A few Molotov cocktails and burnt cars later, the residents of the villas started moving out. Plastic bags now danced across the wide lawns. But the decline of St. Kell didn’t reach the notoriety it boasts today until the prison was thrust upon them by the city of Strasbourg, home to the European Assembly and bastion of human rights, in the late 80s. Built behind Niedergass, the St. Kell Prison wall came right up to the property line of Mamama’s farmhouse, completing the enclosure for her rabbits.
When his first son, Valéry, was born next to the prison authority’s construction cranes, Mamama’s son Arnaud announced the family would finally be moving. Maybe they’d even try their hand at New York. He’d heard there was a micro-climate with mineral soil just like home. They could grow Riesling, he reasoned. Let their children thrive like autumn grapes, their one lonely St. Kell vine having been trampled by the prison wall. But as Mamama shook her head slowly, he knew he would never abandon Niedergass while she was alive. And thus Valéry, Nicolas and Marianne Arbogast spent their childhood butted up against the Prison of St. Kell.
“Gottfedomi!” muttered Nico as he once again re-opened the large scab on his right knee by brushing it against the dried wood of his shovel.
“Mamama would kill you if she heard that. And you don’t even pronounce it right. Say Fudegl. Or better yet, speak French, Gummizwèrisch.” Calling his little brother a rubber dwarf was a favorite pastime for Valéry, in fact any Alsatian insults made him feel superior since little Nico had trouble with the dialect and spoke only the standard French he learned in ecole maternelle, the neighborhood pre-school.
“Well, Kässfratz,” piped up Marianne as she called Valéry a cheese-face. The middle child, she had a way with words and had picked up French, Alsatian and a bit of Turkish from St. Kell’s Saturday market. “At least he’s better at digging than you. We wouldn’t have made it this far if it weren’t for the little schnudelnas and his shovel.”
“I’m not a booger-nose,” said Nico as he wiped at his face, just to be sure. He put down his shovel and looked at his bleeding knee. After months of digging, cursing and long pauses for pain au chocolat in the public tunnels near the river, today would be the day they first heard about the only part of St. Kell they hadn’t seen. Mamama Arbogast, their golden-toothed grandmother, boasted that she had travelled to four countries without leaving her home just by being in Alsace, a spot that France and Germany both wanted so much that they took turns protecting it from each other’s bombs. But she also talked about the deeper cellar that had been filled in, closed off, walled over and hidden from view for so long that no one believed it was still there, much less accessible.
The municipal cellars of St. Kell had once been connected to several homes on Niedergass and, some said, ran all the way to Strasbourg in an underground network that had since been sealed off to prevent invasions of both rodents and visitors from across the Rhine river. But what most people didn’t know was that under the whole network of cellars, there was a deeper, grander cellar that had been around at least as long as the Arbogasts.
Marianne’s Kinkele, the pet rabbit who had been spared from Mamama’s cream sauces, finally passed at the old age of 8 and she was lovingly buried by her brothers in the garden. Their father warned them to dig at least a meter down or the foxes would come for Kinkele. Valéry shoveled dirt around until his arms hurt and the dark set in, then Marianne set the soft, white body in the hole and Nicolas heaped dirt over the top. All three stomped tearfully over the grave, trying their best to make the bunny safe from digging predators, but by morning, the dirt was loose and had a depression in the middle. They couldn’t tell if an animal had succeeded in pulling Kinkele out and the thought brought Marianne back to tears. She wanted more than anything to dig again and check, to make the grave deeper, to protect her Kinkele from digging claws and hungry jaws. Mamama pressed Marianne’s wet face into her thick apron and stroked her hair. “Kinkele is safe, Bobele. If those foxes got to her, they took her to the Unterkeller.”
“The Unterkeller?” Nicolas had questioned. None of them had heard that word before. Marianne stopped crying and looked up at Mamama, who was now glancing in the kitchen to see if her son could hear her. Confirming that he couldn’t, she crouched down with the trio and started whispering in the mystic tenors that only a heavily-accented grandmother can pull off.
“There are hollows down below. Rabbits like places like that, dark and rounded. Quiet. A deep world for diggers. Kinkele is fine now—she’s in the Unterkeller.” Arnaud came through the door and Mamama stood up while brushing off her skirt. The children sensed that this was a secret between themselves and their grandmother, so they only questioned her when their parents were out of earshot. Mamama relished in their curiosity and tried her best to make her replies cryptic.
Mamama revealed how she used to get to the Unterkeller, which was now probably right below the prison. She’d go through a door in the rabbit shed, which led to the neighbor’s barn and then across to a small wooden trap door in the floor that was covered with hay. She’d go down to the cellar and cross back over to the other side, now a level below her own rabbits. She would find a small opening in the corner and take the long, uneven stairs that wound down another two stories to the Unterkeller. There was a great rectangular room, she’d said, with arched ceilings and stone benches along the sides. Unconventional things happened in unconventional rooms, she added.
When the young Arbogasts took on the task of finding the elusive Unterkeller, they knew it wouldn’t be easy. But they had a whole summer ahead of them before the rentrée and going from the prison wall of St. Kell to the prison of their desks. Nico would have to finally learn to read this year and Valéry would be layered with homework while Marianne would take up her tedious piano lessons again. They knew this was their only opportunity. So the intrepid trio had spit on their dirty hands and shaken in agreement that they would find the cave before the end of summer.
The foundations of the St. Kell Prison went deep—too deep, it seemed, to allow any suspicious digging in the area by three ragged siblings with shovels. They’d tried Mamama’s route and encountered poured concrete and cinderblock walls where the stairwell should have been. But their curiosity and Mamama’s flashing gold smile told them there was another point of access for the finding.
Valéry gave Mamama an extra glass of schnapps after dinner all week in hopes of teasing out clues, but she’d usually just start singing “du kom di missile” for him, ending with “ding, ding” and a nose tweak. It was a song about a mouse crawling up and down, ringing various bells, but Valéry didn’t seem amused.
“Really, Mamama, is there another way?” he’d press.
“Come here, Bobele.” Everyone under the age of 40 was a bobele, a baby, to Mamama. “Don’t tell your papa, but I’m sure you could get in there, little missele, my tiny mice. You could go through the big game hunter’s house on Raphael Street, sneak right in like rodents. Oh, fudegel. They had so many parties over there; they must have had quite a wine cellar. I remember walking by when they were building that place. They had machines helping them, something the old town never had. They were digging pretty deep. There could be as much of that house below as there is above.”
The two story white house was ridiculously grand, even for the newer part of St. Kell. A round tower with a pointed, shingled roof looked like a cross between a witch’s hat and a chateau. Over-sized picture windows were covered in vines and wooden roll-down shutters. Two-men-high rose bushes dangled pink blooms over a barely visible path that was choked with weeds. Grass was growing out of the cracks in the thick stone steps.
Valéry led the group over the fence into an unkempt backyard. Dead leaves and pine needles made a thick carpet over the ground. Rusty gardening tools rested against the house, sharing their orange oxidation with the house’s white paint. Blackened, moldy walnuts crushed under their feet as they circled the house looking for a way in.
“Schnudelnas, do you think you can fit through there?” asked Valéry of his little brother as he pointed to a small rectangular flap on the side of a glassed-in porch. It was a dog door, locked shut with a metal latch that gave after two kicks from Val sent it swinging on its hinges. Nicolas didn’t respond until after he had squirmed sideways through the door and sprung up on the other side of the glass in a Peter Pan stance.
“I’m not a schnudelnas!” he shouted through the yellowed pane and then pulled his pants down to show holey grey underwear to his siblings before running off giggling into the house. Marianne banged on the glass and pleaded with Nicolas to open the door, but was afraid of raising her voice since the house next door was still inhabited. She turned around nervously to see if any neighbors were getting too curious then turned her attention back to the dark house her brother had disappeared into.
“Bear! There’s a bear!” came a high-pitched voice from inside. Nico came bounding back out to the porch with excitement. “Marianne, there’s a bear inside. He’s a hundred times bigger than Doudours. Come look.” He fiddled around and turned a key that was graciously left behind on the other side of the door, letting his sister in. Valéry followed behind.
They walked gingerly around giant ghosts— massive pieces of carved furniture covered in flowered sheets—and swept sticky cobwebs aside. Sure enough, in the first room they found an upright taxidermied bear with a strand of dusty Christmas lights strung around its neck. It was indeed bigger than Doudours, Nico’s teddy bear and confidant. The walls were lined with different heads: boar, deer, elk and moose, some sporting limp Santa hats. Interspersed with the mounted animals were blank spaces displaying yellowed outlines of plaques on the wall where some other unfortunate creatures had previously been attached. The door to a central hallway was propped open with a strangely-shaped mass that appeared to be an elephant’s foot.
Light filtered into the round tower room through slats in the shutters, clearly showing the outline of two boys. Nico ran up to them, seeing up close that they were bronze varieties of himself, two boys older than toddlers, but not yet showing wisdom in their round metal cheeks. “I want!” came his familiar refrain as Nico tried to lift one who was holding bronze grapes. He strained until his face flushed crimson and the statue levitated a millimeter off the ground.
“You’ll get a hernia, put that down,” said Marianne as she stroked the cold cheek. “He is cute though. Looks a bit like you, Nico.” Nicolas smiled and dropped the boy the short distance to the floor with a dull thud, then wrapped his arm around the motionless boy’s shoulders. Twins.
“We need to get down lower. Let’s find the basement,” came the commanding big brother wisdom of Valéry. The three returned to poking around, opening doors to messes of cobwebs and endless furniture. Finally, Valéry’s voice came again, from farther away this time. “This way, there are stairs. Come on.” Marianne took Nico’s hand and ducked under more webs toward the sound of his voice. A wooden door waited ahead, open a few feet, but showing only darkness on the other side. Nicolas tugged at Marianne’s arm with increasing force, willing her to continue and taunting her for being afraid of the dark. A skinny beam of light finally angled out the wood frame accompanied by Valéry’s voice. “I brought a light, Marianne. Do we have Schnudelnaus?” A resounding thud as Val was knocked to the ground by a boy half his age confirmed that they did.
The three pressed on, accompanied by the fine beam of light and intermittent sneezes. “The air isn’t the same here,” explained Marianne as she covered her face again to expel. “It’s almost too old to breathe,” she complained as they forged ahead, low and slow in air that was suspiciously warmer than the cellar’s just meters away. Her fear of small spaces tended to manifest in the form of breathing troubles. The dark and the dank competed to be fearsome, transforming the staleness into a mounting heat as the trio turned corners. Its invasion into local lungs dragged the explorers with purpose and sent them teetering to the brink of panic and claustrophobia as they continued with outstretched arms.
Seven minutes later, which felt more like seventy, glowing stripes of light shone through a slatted door at the end of the tunnel. Valéry approached the door and peered through the slats. A small, square room with fake wood paneling was visible in the un-natural underground light. Carpets covered the floor, heaping in some places to several layers thick. A boy and a man sat in a corner, motionless.
Marianne and Nico crowded up next to Valéry to stare, undetected, at the pair. Nico sniffed his runny nose and the boy in the room looked up as if he’d heard. “Be quiet, Schnudelnaus!” said Valéry, but it was his harsh whisper, not the sniffling, that betrayed their presence. The man in the room looked directly at the door and stood up. He walked over the wooden door and pushed it open with all his strength, dragging the bottom across the dirt floor of the tunnel and pushing the Arbogasts back.
The man saw the three terrified children and smiled broadly. “As-Salaam-Alaikum! I’ve never seen anyone come in this way before. Welcome!”
“Where are we?” asked Nico, still standing in the passage, but now bathed in light.
“Oh, you don’t know? Then the grace of Allah brought you here.” said the man. He had a scruffy beard and gentle face. “You’re at 32 Grünewald. This is where we talk to our souls. You are welcome to stay and get to know yours.”
Valéry looked to his sister who was shivering, not with cold, but fear. He knew the claustrophobia had gotten the better of her and that she wouldn’t last much longer underground. He couldn’t make her go back through the dark tunnel again. “Monsieur,” started Valéry, but he was interrupted by the man.
“You can call me Halit. And this is my son, Mehmet.”
Only now did Marianne pipe up weakly in response to the man’s initial greeting. “Wa-Alaikum As-Salaam.” She’d heard it a thousand times at the market and was happy to finally repeat it underground, away from her Maman’s ears.
“Halit” continued Valéry, “can you show us an easier way out of here?”
Halit nodded and then motioned with his head. “This way, little explorers.”
They turned a corner, walked up a surprisingly few stairs and came out into the bright grey daylight of St Kell through a green door at the base of a tower block building.“Do you live in the Painter’s Quarter? Can you get home?” Valéry replied that they were from the old town, but that he could find his way back. Just as they were leaving, Halit placed one hand on top of Nico’s head and the other on Mehmet’s. “Same size, you two. Will you be going to school this year too, little one? Nico nodded, making Halit’s hand bob up and down. “Good,” said Halit. “So we’ll see you at the rentrée.”