I’m presently engaged in editing my historical novel, Touching the Wire, published in 2014. Not big changes: just moving errant commas that are running riot, swapping odd words for some that I like better, clarifying where needed, and rewording awkward sentences before it goes for a professional edit. I’m on chapter nine. It isn’t the first chapter that’s had me in tears, but this one is particularly relevant given the time of year. The time is Christmas 1944, and the place is Auschwitz/Birkenhau, Poland.
‘Wind from the Carpathians blew a breath of life across the camp. The October nights were cold, now. Crematorium IV lay idle, damaged beyond use, but the Sonderkommando had failed to set the charges in the other crematoria.
Rumour travelled across the camp, spread by the voracious underground network, and the outrage of Nazi officers. Although most of the explosives had been used for demolition charges, the men of the Sonderkommando had also fashioned grenades using sardine cans and shoe-polish tins organised from Kanada. Local partisans had slipped small arms, hammers, knives, and axes through the fence. Rumour said twenty-five guards had been killed. Rumour also had it a hated German Kapo had been stuffed alive into a crematorium oven.
The rebels of the 12th Sonderkommando fed the flames as they’d known they would. It was the way of the camp: every few months a new intake burned the bodies of the last Sonderkommando and then processed the bodies of others, including their own families, conscious they too would feed the same flames. Flames and grief, hatred and guilt, and the stench of death filled their lives, waking and sleeping.
He sent a message to Miriam. Twelve men escaped. SS patrols with dogs are searching. Next day he wrote another. They crossed the Vistula. The SS tracked them and shot them. They have brought back their bodies. I believe one may yet be free.
The dead could not betray them, but the living could. He wrote yet another message for Miriam to spread. The SS have traced the gunpowder back to the Union Munitions Factory. Warn the girls there. He left the message in the usual place and waited.
A reply came next day. I fear we are too late. Workers in the pulverraum are being questioned as I write.
If he still believed in God, he would have begged for his help. He sent up a silent prayer anyway and paced outside the medical block. Next day, he could write Miriam better news. Rumour says orders from Berlin have arrived. The gassings are to stop.
Another sleepless night and another desperate dawn. He checked the crack in the wall: the message had gone. In the distance, a recognisable figure approached still upright despite his deprivation. ‘Rabbi Schaeler, how are you?’
‘The guards are jittery. We believe the Soviet army is pushing west at a great rate. We fear for our lives.’
‘The SS are also nervous. orders have come to stop the gassings. There’s talk of blowing up the other crematoria to hide their crimes.’
The rabbi slipped a note into his hand. ‘This is from Miriam.’
He read it aloud. ‘God hears our prayers. We have great need of blankets.’ He smiled. ‘Miriam’s faith is absolute. Is she well?’
‘She’s exhausted, but her faith sustains her. Ilse is a great help and comfort.’
‘I’m glad she has a friend. I wish I had her belief.’ It was, as Aaron Schaeler had said, political prisoners with something to fight for and those of great faith, who were the ones who most easily found the strength to endure. He enjoyed Aaron’s company: his friendship helped keep him sane. They had had many deep, if short, debates concerning God, Judaism, Catholicism, and in more weeks, faith in general.
Rabbi Schaeler nodded in understanding. ‘This place is enough to test all belief, yet God upholds us in our struggle.’ He smiled that same serene smile Miriam managed, day after day, fighting with whatever strength she had. ‘It’s freezing in the infirmary. I’ll help carry the blankets, if you can get them, after I’ve cleaned the latrines. I’m to go to the women’s camp next.’
‘Thank you, Rabbi.’ He hurried back to the medical block; Miriam would have her blankets.
He blocked his passage. ‘My friend, what conclusions have you drawn from yesterday’s autopsies on the dwarves?’
‘That they were malnourished. Their organs showed signs of failure. I didn’t need to perform autopsies to discover that.’
‘You are being pedantic. What effects did you record?’
The evil bastard would string him on the gibbet or stand him in front of the wall of death if he knew what and who he’d recorded. Clauberg, killer of women, Oberheusen, murderer of children, Kremer, needle of death – Schmitt, coward, murderer and beast. He looked into the fathomless dark eyes of evil – and him, the Good Uncle, child torturer, madman, and murderer. ‘I saw only two senseless deaths. These are people, Herr Doktor.’
‘They’re vermin but interesting vermin. You’ll carry out your orders. Remember your little nurse and your patients. Think about the uses human skin can be put to.’ The back of the immaculate green tunic receded.
His fists clenched. Rumour had it there was a market for human skin. ‘Herr Doktor?’
The green tunic swivelled on a polished heel. ‘Yes?’
‘A nurse in the infirmary in the women’s camp. She has heterochromia iridii. I know your interest in eye colour, so I questioned her. This peculiarity runs in her family.’
‘But she’s not Sinti or Roma?’
‘Bring her to me.’
‘Yes, Herr Doktor.’ He searched store cupboards until he found blankets: dozens of clean, neatly folded blankets. He filled his arms, carried the blankets to the end of the medical block and returned for more. When he got back with the third load Aaron Schaeler was waiting.
The rabbi hugged half the blankets to his chest, and together they walked towards the women’s camp. They were both known, and the guards gave them access. He almost ran into the infirmary building. The stench hit him in the guts. ‘Miriam…’
‘Chuck…’ She hurled herself into his arms as he dropped the blankets.
‘You look flushed.’ He held her at arm’s length and examined her. ‘I will try to get more food to you.’ He picked up the blankets. ‘Thirty. It may be possible to get more, but I have to think of a reason to come or risk suspicion. I won’t get away with my nurse with different-coloured eyes having died of pneumonia a second time.’
‘Thirty. It’s a miracle.’ She kissed him. The stench of the infirmary was on her clothes and in her hair.
How soon he’d forgotten how bad things were here. ‘I’ll send more drugs and dressings as soon as I can. You feel hot. Do you have a fever?’
She wasn’t being entirely truthful. Her eyes reflected the fear in his heart. Sickness, betrayal… He should be here with her, caring for her.
Her hand was small in his, her eyes large and anxious in her pinched face. ‘Peti? Arturas?’
He forced a smile. ‘They are in good health and better fed as pets of the camp physician. So far he has only taken blood from them.’
‘I’m sorry I doubted you.’
‘Don’t ever be sorry. I’ll come again soon and send what medicines and food I can.’ He turned to the rabbi. ‘Aaron, marry us. If she will, I want Miriam to be my wife. Miriam, will you?’
Her face lit with a smile. ‘Oh, Chuck, yes. Yes!’ Her face fell. ‘But the Rabbi is not permitted.’
‘Because I’m not a Jew? Can I convert?’
Aaron shook his head. ‘It would take at least a year to teach you. We may have only hours. Miriam is right.’
‘Is there no way?’
‘You abide by the seven commandments of Noah. We have talked enough for me to know you are a good man. I am supposed to dissuade you three times from converting to Judaism.’
‘If it means I can marry Miriam, nothing will dissuade me.’
‘You should be circumcised, given a Jewish name, and immersed in the mikvah.’ Aaron looked from him to Miriam and threw up his hands. ‘Mitzvah, these are not normal times. We’ll improvise. Later, if we survive, it will be my honour to teach you. Find me four nurses to hold the chuppah.’
Miriam fled to find them. All who could rise from their bunks crowded around. Four nurses held a blanket aloft, like a roof.
He stood bemused as Miriam circled him seven times. She stopped at his side. ‘We have no wine.’
Rabbi Schaeler gave him a wry smile. ‘Water will suffice. Did your Jesus not turn water into wine?’
‘We have no rings.’
A woman hobbled forward coughing. For a moment, he didn‘t recognise her. She had aged years in weeks. ‘Ilse?’
‘I swallowed my wedding ring when we came here. I rescued it from the latrine and have kept it hidden sewn inside my dress. I’d be honoured if you’d take it.’
Miriam gasped. ‘Ilse, I can’t accept such a gift.’
‘I have my memories, Miriam. And I’ve no further need of a ring. This will be your memory in years to come. Just promise you’ll remember me.’
Miriam hugged her, eyes bright with tears, and took the offered ring. ‘How could any of us ever forget you, Ilse?’
Chatan – bridegroom – you must declare thus to your bride. ‘Behold, you are betrothed to me with this ring according to the law of Moses and Israel.’
He repeated the words.
‘Now place the ring on Miriam’s finger.’
The ring slipped on. It was loose but in time it would fit the god of Moses and Israel willing.
‘According to Jewish law you are now married. I should read the marriage contract. I fear I cannot remember the exact words. You undertake to provide food, shelter, and clothing and be attentive to Miriam’s emotional needs.’ He sighed. ‘God can see into your hearts. He knows you wish to do these things. Here…’ He shrugged and launched into Hebrew.
‘The seven blessings,’ Miriam whispered, squeezing his hand as, one after another, her friends poured blessings on them. Her eyes shone. Fever, fear, or happiness?
Aaron waited for silence. ‘It is traditional to break a glass to signify the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. We have no glass. No matter. In our hearts we do these things according to our tradition. You are man and wife and are truly blessed. May your joy be long. Now, I fear I must leave you.’
‘Mazel Tov.’ The shouts of rejoicing, the smiling faces, he would remember forever. ‘Mazel Tov.’
He bent to kiss his wife. ‘I love you, Miriam. I love you so much.’
The honeymoon lasted half an hour. He smiled and waved and left his heart amid the parched courage, the starved hope, and the ever-present smell of rancid soap and excrement.
His joy lasted half a day.
He delivered the news, gloating. ‘The names of some of the resistance have been given under torture. Four women are accused of supplying explosives.’
Which four? A guard knew the names. He scribbled a quick note and hid it in the crack in the wall. Roza Robota, Ella Gaertner, Esther Wajcblum, and Regina Safirsztain have been arrested for supplying explosives.
One of those poor women knew their names and where to find them. The SS would go to any lengths to get information to expose the rest of the resistance: they would rape and torture her until she begged to tell them all she knew.
Walt surveyed the surface of Lil’s dining table: no water marks, no hairs, no specks of dust – just a smooth sheen. French polishing wasn’t his favourite job if only because he had to suspend all other work for fear of raising dust. He hovered a finger over the surface. Patience: finishes took longer to dry in cold weather. A finger-mark would ruin the whole thing. He’d leave it until tomorrow before applying the carnauba wax.
He should be tidying the workshop, or sweeping the coal corner ready for a new delivery, sharpening his chisels, or throwing out the tin bath that hung on the wall. How many years since they’d last used it? A shape on the wall stopped him dead: a gibbet, with a hangman’s noose. It was a shadow, only a shadow, just the low sun throwing the distorted image of the bird table, hung with a half-coconut, through the window.
But the memory of the gibbet was inescapable.
November: in an attempt to cover their crimes, the Nazis had destroyed the gas chambers, and the internees had rejoiced. But there were other ways to kill: phenol or chloroform injections to the heart, starvation, beatings, repeated delousing, and executions. One by one the survivors succumbed.
The four women arrested for smuggling explosives after Crematorium IV was destroyed, continued to hold out under Gestapo interrogation. Rape, beatings, electric shocks, the removal of fingernails – they were only girls, really. How long could they stay silent?
The camp shivered on starvation rations through a Polish winter. More and more skeletal figures, only half their normal body-weight, sat on the ground wrapped in torn blankets and stared into an unknown hell: Muselmann sat beside Muselmann no longer knowing who they were or where they were. They felt no fear, no hunger, thirst, or pain: they’d surrendered to their fate and but for the thudding of their hearts were already dead.
His work in the hospital camp and the medical block, combined with fear of their betrayal, made sleep impossible unless exhaustion claimed him, and then his nightmares woke him screaming: Miriam lay on a dissecting table or stood while he placed a noose around her neck and kicked away the chair. Her body swung on the end of a rope. Then it was him facing a firing squad. And worst of all, the children: he wept for the children.
December followed November with relentless, mind-numbing cold. Peti and Arturas still lived: so far, he’d shielded them from the worst atrocities, playing God again, though Arturas was unwell. Aaron Schaeler was ill too with scarlet fever, and messages came less often. He worked as if in a daze helpless to stop the horror for fear of swingeing retribution on Miriam and the women’s camp. The Soviet army must come soon.
A low drone took him outside. He tilted his head, trying to gauge its direction. In the distance, rank after rank of bombers flew in formation. Panic erupted around him: Allied planes. Guards and officers ran from the buildings and hurried towards the bomb shelters, leaving the internees to fend for themselves in the open. He stood in the middle of the track and watched their approach. Silently, he cheered them on, praying they knew which were the command headquarters and which the barracks of the prisoners of war.
Time hung like the undropped bombs. The planes droned on and explosions blasted the still air. Flame and black smoke rose in a pall of too bitter a memory. Again they’d targeted the oil refineries about five miles away. Did the pilots even know the extermination camp existed? Had they no idea what was happening to the men, women, and children? Did the Allied governments not care?
Christmas Eve arrived with the dread of past Christmas Eves when the SS had erected Christmas trees under which to leave their macabre presents of frozen souls. While the officers and guards celebrated, he slipped away. Twins were housed in various barracks across the camp: Peti and Arturas were in camp BIIe, which had been the Gypsy camp. He’d persuaded the camp physician to let him move one set of twins to the barrack set aside for them in the women’s camp to relieve overcrowding. He checked the order was in his pocket and hurried to BIIe.
Inside the barrack, it was dark and cold. He switched on the light and children huddled together, cringing away from him. ‘Peti? Arturas?’ He found them hiding beneath a blanket. ‘There’s nothing to fear. I’m taking you to see Miriam, that’s all. Come.’ He took them by the hand and led them across frozen ground, past the guard, and out of the compound.
There were children other than twins in the women’s camp now that they were no longer gassed on arrival, and the sight of them warmed his heart. He stopped outside the women’s infirmary. ‘Wait here.’
The inside of the infirmary was decorated with fir boughs hung with bright tatters of rag and crammed with women determined to celebrate Christmas whatever their faith.
‘Miriam.’ He hugged her and held her close. ‘Are you well?’
‘I am but we have an outbreak of scarlet fever. You look tired, Chuck. You must hang on. They say the Soviets are near.’
‘Not near enough.’ He pointed to the fir boughs. ‘You’ve all worked hard to keep up morale. You have isolated the infected?’
‘Yes, of course, and we’ve scrubbed the floors with snow and the disinfectant you sent.’
He nodded. ‘You must stay well.’
She waved aside his concern. ‘We’ve presents for the children, look. The women have sewn toys from scraps of material. And we’ve candy for them.’
‘Shared by those who’ve had parcels from home. I’ve saved some for Arturas and Peti.’
‘Then you’d better give it to them.’
He went to the door and motioned the boys inside.
‘Arturas, Peti, you’re frozen.’ Miriam hugged them close. Other women crowded round to welcome them home and press small gifts into their hands.
‘I got them moved to Block 22.’
‘Thank you, Chuck. Thank you.’
‘I should have thought of it, before.’
‘They’re here now.’ She took Peti’s hand in one of hers and held Arturas’s in the other. ‘Look, Peti, one of the girls has made a little Christmas tree. And we’ve candles, Arturas, left over from Hanukkah.’
Candles organised from Kanada. They lit the candles as the light failed. Children’s upturned faces flickered yellow in the light of the flames, and Arturas and Peti’s eyes were wide with wonder. A voice began to sing quietly and uncertainly. A Polish carol? Another voice joined in, and then others; those who recognised the tune, women of all faiths, sang in their own language, swelling the sound to the rafters. He joined in with the words his mother had sung. Angels greet the holy child, in a manger, heart beguiled. Christ is Lord and Christ is born, joy to all, this Holy morn.
He put an arm around Miriam’s shoulder. His deep voice underscored the soprano and alto voices of the women and the high trill of the children. Rejoice, rejoice, throughout the earth, let love embrace the holy birth. Pain and sorrow leave behind; our saviour’s born for all mankind. The voices faded to silence, and women hugged each other and cried.
Miriam wiped away tears. ‘Can you all stay? Just for tonight?’
‘No-one will miss us, not tonight.’ He found space on a bunk for the twins and followed her to her bunk. They lay in each other’s arms far into the night listening to the strains of a midnight mass from the men’s camp and the quiet sob of broken hearts.
On Boxing Day, he took the boys to their new barrack. They were no safer there, but Miriam would be able to see them, and they’d enjoy the comfort of the familiar faces of those who loved them. Allied planes again dropped their bombs on the oil refinery and the IG Farben factory at Buna. 1945 arrived without fanfare. He left message after message in the crack in the wall, praying Aaron had recovered enough to deliver them. Direct orders from Berlin. The four women are to be executed. Did that mean the SS had extracted a confession?
He waited for guards to come and arrest him his guts writhing like a coiling serpent. He’d have heard if Miriam had been arrested, wouldn’t he?
Message followed message. Send word that you are well, M. I love you. He walked to the place where Rabbi Schaeler would look for messages and pushed it into the crack. It wouldn’t go. His fingers drew out a slip of paper, and he opened it his heart racing. I long to hear from you, M. I love you.
He’d left that note three days ago. She had to be safe: she had to be. He folded both messages, pushed them back into the crack, and returned to his work. Arturas and Peti had been brought back to the camp hospital from their barrack after only a day in the women’s camp, and he needed to check on them. Arturas was ill with fever and isolated. Peti was in a room with other single twins waiting on the fate of their siblings who were all that kept them alive. He feared that, for Arturas and Peti, time had run out.’
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