In his third novel Little Man, What Now? published in Germany in 1932, Hans Fallada tells the story of a impoverished young couple living in depression-era Berlin in the early 1930s.

Johannes Pinneberg is an underpaid and eventually unemployed white-collar worker struggling to provide for his wife and child. Every day is a painful ordeal as they try wrestle against forces that seem determined to defeat their efforts to establish some tiny shred of security in the midst of general economic devastation, grinding poverty and rising crime and violence.

There are many enemies working against the Pinnebergs, but most painful of all is the enemy of isolation. Pinneberg and his wife Lammchen are forced to try to make their way in a fragmented world in which no one can be trusted.  Johannes describes their situation saying,

‘It’s because we’re nobody. ‘We’re on our own. There are other people just like us all on their own too, everybody thinking he’s someone special. If only we were workers at least! They call each other comrade and help each other…’ 270

But, even the workers who “call each other comrade” are torn apart by the powerful forces of poverty and unemployment, and growing distrust of all forms of authority.

Near the end of the novel, Pinneberg, Lammchen and their infant son “the Shrimp” take up residence outside Berlin along with three thousand others in a primitive shanty town known as the allotments. It is a settlement of tiny shacks that in better days citizens from Berlin used to escape the heat of summer. The tiny shacks are unheated, so, in the winter all who were able, moved away in search of better housing. The allotments “shrank to fifty people at most in winter”. Fallada and his wife were among the few who remained after the great exodus.

Fallada, describes the winter allotment dwellers saying,

those who had stayed behind, the poorest, the toughest and the bravest, felt they belonged together. The trouble was that they did not belong together: they were Communists or Nazis, so there were continual arguments and fights. 297

Little Man, What Now? is a sobering warning that we do not do well on our own. We need each other. We are weaker in isolation. We cannot afford the luxury of independence in the face of turmoil and threat.

Paul wrote in I Corinthains 12:14-16:

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 

This is often viewed as an image of church. But the wisdom of these words extends far beyond the community of faith. Paul expresses here the fact that human beings were designed to reach their fullest potential in communion.

It is a challenge in these days of continuing social caution, to know precisely what human connection might look like.

In the face of the risk of COVID infection, we need to recognize how interdependent we are. The well-being of the individual depends in part upon the well-being of the whole. We are stronger together.

I recently spent an evening, outside with seven other people. I had almost forgotten how much energy is generated by an in-person gathering. The conversation had a vitality I have not experienced in months. As much as I am a solitary soul, I came away from that gathering with a renewed appreciation for the importance of genuine human connection.

At the end of Little Man, What Now? Johannes returns late at night to his little shack in the allotments and finds Lammchen alone outside peering expectantly into the darkness hoping to see her husband return. At the point when she has given up hope, she feels his arms around her from behind.

And suddenly the cold had gone, an immeasurably gentle green wave lifted her up and him with her. They glided up together; the stars glittered very near; she whispered: ‘But you can look at me! Always, always! You’re with me, we’re together…’

 The wave rose and rose…. And then they both went into the house where the Shrimp was sleeping.

It is a small and vulnerable community the Pinnebergs have forged. But, Johannes has reconnected with another living human being. In 1933 as Germany was poised on the brink of descending into the abyss, the conclusion of Little Man, What Now? is a sign of hope that human connection can be maintained despite the unavoidable suffering and horror through which life often passes.

Especially in these days of social distancing, we need to find a face into which we can look, a voice we can hear, even a hand we might touch. These are some of the means God has given us to find light in the midst of darkness and strength in uncertain times.