Part 1, Chapters 1-3 Summary

Fifteen-year-old Michael Berg becomes ill in the fall. On his way home from school one afternoon in October, he is immediately weak on his feet, and he cannot stop from vomiting. He leans against a building on Bahnhofstrasse and vomits on the sidewalk. Suddenly, a woman grabs his arm, and she runs water from the nearby tap. She cups water in her hands to clean Michael’s face; then she fills up two pails with water which she uses to clean the sidewalk. Michael begins to cry, so the woman wraps her arms around him. She walks him home, carrying his backpack in one hand and offering him support with the other. Later, the doctor diagnoses him with hepatitis. Michael soon becomes bedridden, and when he is well enough to go outside again, his mother tells him to take the woman some flowers, introduce himself, and thank her for coming to his rescue.

In later years, the house on Bahnhofstrasse is torn down, and the new building has a smooth façade of pale plaster. It houses many small apartments that are casually rented and vacated. But the old building is tall and made of sandstone blocks and brickwork. There are multiple balconies and arches on its front, and the stairway to the top floor narrows as it climbs higher into the building. When he is older, Michael often dreams of this building, but not in its place in Bern—he dreams of the building in other countries and is comforted by seeing a familiar place in a strange land. He dreams that he climbs the stairs and turns the knob, but he always wakes before he can go inside.

Michael does go to the woman’s apartment with flowers, but he does not know her name. A neighbor points him to Frau Schmitz on the third floor. The staircase is bare, and Michael recalls that he never got to know the other people who lived in the building. Inside, Frau Schmitz’s apartment is spare, and the kitchen is the largest room. The living room has the only window which looks out onto Bahnhofstrasse. Frau Schmitz is ironing, and Michael sits to watch her slow, deliberate movements. She wears a sleeveless smock, and her hair is tied in back with a clip. Looking back, Michael cannot remember her face as it was then—he sees her face as it was over the course of their later relationship. But when he reconstructs the initial image of her, he knows that she has a strong, broad, womanly face, and Michael thinks that she is beautiful.