I won’t say I was excited to be there. Excited is the wrong word to use when visiting such a dark piece of history, a place where so many souls passed. I had been granted unprecedented access to the camps where the Nazis had committed horrible atrocities. As a historian, I was excited, but as a human being, I felt an unexpected lump of dread mixed with the vague feeling of disgust.
The gates proclaimed that work would make you free, but the truth was that no matter how hard they’d worked, some would never see freedom, much less family or friends again. The structure of the place was purely Nazi, they had organized and filed humans, the way they organized and filed everything else, only the humans, in the cramped file drawer sized beds were never meant to be saved the way the paperwork documenting the horrors of their disposal was.
I toured the rooms full of shoes and prosthetics. Braces, arms and legs made of plastic and Bakelite standing at attention as if waiting for an owner who would never return. Then came the horrible chamber where so many met their chemical death.. the reaper named Zyklon B. In history books, they always make it sound like the gas killed them quickly, though not humanely, but the walls of this hideous room tell a different story, a story of nail marks dug into the walls.. a story of children lifted upon shoulders, towards the imagined clean air that didn’t exist.. a story of crumpled and emaciated bodies, lungs aflame, struggling to wring life out of the death filled air, and failing.
After my tour of this dark hell, I felt sick in a way I couldn’t explain, as if snakes had wrapped themselves around my very soul and writhed around my heart.. choking it. I wanted to feel tears, but instead a queasy feeling worked at my stomach and my throat felt dry and itchy. There would be more to see, later, but for now I bade my guide a farewell and climbed into a waiting taxi, which took me to the small boarding house I was staying at, with its impeccably kept walkway and stairs, tidy, and very German.
I wondered if the people who had lived here before knew what was going on in the hell down the road, and like so many other people, had been silent about what was going on, for fear that they too would become ashes. The weight of being part of that machine of death must have been confusing and awful, though not excusable. I splashed water on my face in the sink adjoining the WC and went to my room to lie down. Downstairs I could hear the Frau of the household singing as she made what smelled like some kind of strudel.. a smell that would normally have driven me into her kitchen to steal a bite, but now, I could not think of food, my twisted insides refused to let me.
The blanket was soft, faded, and very clean, and I closed my eyes nearly as soon as my body touched it. The old farmhouse bed squeaked a tiny protest before giving in to my weight, and the coolness of the pillow felt like heaven to my fevered brow.
I don’t know the moment I drifted off to sleep, but I remember my dream, because it was vivid, and because it frightened me. I was standing on the back deck of a large stone house, overlooking that hell of a place I had left today.. only in my dream, it was running again.. the stink of human bodies and sweat wafted from behind the wire, there were people yelling, and some crying.. but it was faint, and quickly silenced by a shot. There was a tall man in uniform standing next to me, a look of pleasure on his face, he spoke in German, but like most dreams, I understood every word. “It’s efficient, a good way to get rid of the sickness plaguing us. Don’t you think, Frauline? “ he looked into my eyes, and I understood then that he could see me. I looked away from those stone cold eyes and down at my shoes.. dream me, and somehow real me, were deathly afraid to do more than that under his gaze. “Ach, don’t be like that, kitten, you know they are like cattle, they must be dealt with, they ruined our Motherland, now we take back what is owed to us.” His arm went around my shoulders and squeezed gently, but firmly. He reached for my hand and I followed him into the house. Inside smelled of leather and books, of sweetness and luxury, unlike the tainted air outside, laced with death. The furnishings and art spoke of stolen wealth, and the scary man lorded over all as if it were a castle.
I sat next to him while a tired, thin looking woman served us beer and strudel on a low table in front of the sofa. Her hands were clean, but the nails were broken and ugly, and when I looked up into her eyes, I felt as if her sorrow would break my heart. I quickly looked at my own hands instead, as the uniformed man put his arm around my shoulders again, and leaned over to plant a kiss on my cheek. Another uniformed man came in and sat down, he was clearly a guard, he smelt a little of the outside, of gun powder, and aftershave applied too heavily. He sat down across from us and began talking to the terrifying man who kept his arm around my shoulders. I understood from their conversation that the man I feared was in charge of all he surveyed, at least in his mind and in the minds of the men around him. I heard what happened to the person who had been crying. My stomach recoiled as they laughed, I grabbed my beer and drank deeply, hoping to shield my face so they wouldn’t see the recoil. Soon the second man walked out onto the deck to smoke, and the man with the hard steel eyes was back to casting them on me. He leaned in for another kiss and I screamed.
“Frau! Frau! Wake up! “ the lady of the house was shaking me gently, pleading for me to stop screaming. I did as soon as I saw her face and realized that she wasn’t the man with the frozen soul. I gulped, and apologized to the poor woman in my room, as she sat on the end of the bed looking more like a worried mother than an upset landlady. She handed me a glass of water from the bedside pitcher and sat back down, watching me with a serious look on her face. I had a horrible feeling she was about to ask me to leave, but instead, in accent heavy English, she spoke to me softly “I know you do work to tell a story of the past, but some past, it is never meant to be part of a story, it gets into a person and poisons them. I know about the bad things, everyone does, we must all relive the bad of our ancestors with shame in this place, but some things.. not even we will know because it is dangerous. I know you go to that place, the place of death, but please don’t bring it here with you, and don’t take it home. He.. er.. it is dangerous. Just remember, please.” She got up clumsily and left. I wanted to ask her what she meant, but her warning had made me feel uneasy, I was afraid to ask, she might tell me I had something to fear after all.
I dug a book about the flu pandemic of the early 1900’s out of my bag and read it until I started to nod off again. The rest of my dreams were normal and forgettable that night, except for the strangest feeling of someone else being there too, just out of sight.
The morning came in bright through my window, and I looked forward to a day full of writing, and another visit to ‘that place’. My laptop warmed my lap and I ate strudel that had been left for me. I typed the facts about what I’d seen the day before, my impression and thoughts, later to be added to my book. The night before lingered in my psyche, those eyes still burned into my memory. His kiss still burned through the dream on my cheek, like winter frostbite.
I finished working on my computer and showered quickly. I called a cab to take me to ‘the place’ and called my guide to let him know I’d be on my way. The nausea held off until the gate was in sight, and as I stepped from the cab, the details of what I’d seen in my dream crept back, lining themselves up perfectly with what actually was there. I had hoped for some obvious invention of my mind in details so that I could write off the dream, but I was having no such luck. My guide took me to see where the ovens had been, the next logical step in a gut wrenching process.
Today I felt less sick, but the anger that people could do this, still lingered with me. I spent hours there, looking, touching, imaging…filling my head with the horrors that my hostess back in town had told me not to. I studied the archives of photos and papers that were in the storage, too fragile to be out on display, and there, amongst them, I found him. Cruelly handsome, with piercing blue eyes and hair the color of autumn wheat, he stared up at me from his colorized photo. He had quickly moved through the ranks, knowing who to wine and dine, and had been given a plush appointment overseeing the operation of the camp.. and he had made the best of it, the locals called him the Mayor of Deathtown, but everyone who met him only called him “Sir’ to his face.
I shuddered inwardly and finished my research. I prayed that I would never see his face again, but I knew it would haunt me. I shut down my work prematurely and set out for some lunch.
Back at the house I avoided the landlady. I felt as if she would be able to see through me and know what was in my heart. Instead I opened my computer and accessed the internet, looking for information on my inner torment. When the camp had been liberated, some of the prisoners, the stronger ones, had rushed their former captors, and with bare hands, torn them apart. It isn’t talked about, because it is ugly when men become so tormented by other men that they turn into animals, but as the Americans and Brits watched, they understood that this was justice for those tormented souls, justice that may or may not be served in the courts after the war was over. Had my nightmare man been one of those awful people, pulled apart by starved claws and skeletal bodies? No.. he had known the jig was up, and fled, with stolen gold and art, to the Middle East, sheltered by those who also saw the Jew as an enemy, he slithered away from justice. There were sightings, for years after, in Brazil, in Mexico, America, but only later did they find him, dead in an accident, far less cruel than anything he had done to his victims. He was dead, I knew that, but I could still feel his gaze upon me, looking from beyond the grave, into my soul.
I shuddered slightly and pulled up my manuscript, “Get to work, you can shake him off that way.” I told myself. I worked on the details, small things have always interested me, and I wanted my future readers to know the color of the brick, the smell of the place, I wanted to drag them into that hell with me, all in the name of history and accuracy. They could live the horrors from the safety of their warm beds, at home. I typed away at the story for hours, the writing bug had bitten me, I love it when the words come easy. It seemed like hardly any time had passed, but as I looked up, I realized the room had gotten dark, and the house quiet, except the gentle ticking of a clock downstairs somewhere. My brain disengaged from writing and I began to realize that I felt cramped and sore. I stretched myself and laid down on the clean smelling blanket. There must have been some magic in that old farm bed, because it claimed me quickly into the land of sleep, like my own at home never seemed to, or maybe I was just exhausted.
I knew immediately that I was back in his world. My hair felt shorter, a wool skirt brushed my knees, my sleeves looked crisp and white. I glanced around and noticed shops as well as houses, some looked familiar, dirtier, maybe poorer, but the same. My boarding house stood down the lane, the shutters looking dingier than I remembered from my time, from the dust kicked up by the cars and motorbikes of the guards, who came into town from that place. The awful one. You could smell it, when the wind blew, a stench of dirty bodies and death, but then it was gone. I heard talking, and some laughing, a girl in her late teens was talking to a guard, flirting. He handed her something and they walked away, companionably.
Panic gripped my heart, I didn’t know where I was supposed to be, it was as if someone laid out a whole town for my entertainment, and I was afraid. I had asked myself if the people in town knew, but of course they did. They had to see, hear, and certainly smell the parade of death down in the camp. A chubby older lady came out of the boarding house, she was clearly related to my current landlady, her nose and cheeks were so similar it was striking, however, other details differed enough for me to know that this must be an older relation. She started sweeping the stoop and a younger woman with a baby in her arms came out of the house, they appeared to be closely related, and talked in hushed tones amongst themselves. I walked down the street in a daze, trying not to look too out of place, just in case one of the men from that place would notice me, and take me there, to be starved with all the others.
Instead an automobile pulled up alongside, and the driver leaned across, opening the door on the passenger’s side. I could feel his eyes on me, so I stared at the ground and pretended not to see, but the more I resisted, the more I knew I had to look. I met his eyes, and he smiled, but the cruelty was there, dancing like a shining blue devil in his gaze. I climbed into the car, and stared through the dusty windscreen, trying not to look at him. I didn’t need to anyway, I could feel how pleased he was with himself.
We drove out of town, towards the countryside, which, even I had to admit, was lovely-even in this ugly time. The breeze here was clean, devoid of the lingering hint I smelled in town. Here it was just nature and the faint smell of his cologne on the air. We pulled over after a little ways and he got out, pulling a picnic basket and blanket from the back seat. I got out and stood a safe distance away, watching him lay the blanket out and set out the contents of his basket. Instinctively I knew that nobody in the town had access to most of the foods he was setting out, these were elitist luxuries, paid for by deprivation and death. There was bread, and not the rock hard stuff everyone else was getting, but real bread, real butter. There was fresh fruit and beer, cold-cuts and cheeses. I tried not to look hungry.
Part of me was repulsed, but the other part, the curious part, wanted to let it play out, to see what it was all about. It was the latter part that won a few moments later when he patted the blanket next to him, indicating that I was to sit. I obeyed wordlessly, staring at the fine dishes and silver, the man was a monster, but he had good taste. He set a plate next to me and piled it with food, as if he knew I would not take his ill gotten gains of my own accord. He handed me a beer. I studied the small brown bottle, so I wouldn’t study him. I watched his hands move as he gathered his own plate. They were not the hands of someone who was used to hard work. The nails were tidy and clean, clipped short. The fingers were long and one bore a silver signet ring with a death’s head upon it. I looked away and tried not to shudder outwardly.
He stretched out and watched me with those cold eyes, as the long fingers picked at his food. I put my plate in my lap and took a swig of the brown bottle beer. I waited for him to speak, but he was watching me, studying me like an experiment. I felt uncomfortable, and I looked away, to the rolling hills around us, I found myself bringing a piece of cheese to my mouth involuntarily, just so my hands had something to do.
“I thought you might like it out here, I know how uncomfortable you feel at the Detention Facility. You should try the ham, it is quite good. We can’t have my kitten turning into skin and bones, like those animals, you are much too pleasing to the eye for that.” He followed with a laugh. I studied a tree. “Ach, kitten, you must know I only tease, now have some more of the cheese.” I felt frozen as he placed another piece of cheese on my plate, his hand brushing my leg on the way back.
“You know that I will never leave you now, I’ve decided that I like you very much.” He smiled again and took a drink of his beer. “You will write my story, tell them all about the heroic thing we are doing here, purifying this great nation. History has never understood that what we are doing here is vital to all of us, putting down the enemies of the greatest nation ever to be. You will make them see how great we were, not the lies they tell in your time about us.” I looked up at him, as the weight of his words digested in my brain. He chuckled and nodded. I didn’t have to ask, we both knew that time for his was no longer a problem.
I woke up with the stale taste of beer in my mouth, clutching a silver ring.. his ring. The words “I will never leave you.. ” echoed in my brain. I studied the ring for a moment before flinging it from me. It hit the wall and rolled under the bed. I stood and started down the stairs, hoping for some tea or coffee from the landlady. She sat me at the large wooden table and set a cup of coffee in front of me. She snuck glances at me, but didn’t ask any questions. My brain wasn’t ready to communicate with real people anyway. It was too busy planning an escape. I would go by and thank my guide at the awful place, and then pack. I would pay my landlady for the rest of the week, but I would not stay. I had research to do in France, after all, pressing research, someplace not here. Clearly I was losing my mind here. I caught a taxi as soon as I could. My landlady looked knowing as I shoved the money into her hand. As I packed, I found the silver ring tucked into my suitcase. “I will never leave.. ” I decided to get rid of it once I was away from this place.
I got on a train and headed away. I would go to France, plenty of research to do there. I’m sure. Anywhere but here.. ”Never leave.. ”
The hotel was bright, cheery, and French. I don’t like the nasal language as well as I like the guttural tones of German, however, in this case I was willing to make an exception, the French were going to save me from my insanity. A little food, some wine, maybe some shopping, if I could afford it, and I’d be good as new. I unpacked my belongings, and decided to take a nap, I had been too afraid on the train to even close my eyes, but here I would be safe. I stretched across the bed, and for a moment I missed the bed at the German boarding house, but only for a moment, as my eyes drifted closed.
I was back at his house, stretch out on the sofa. He sat in the expensive looking chair across from me, pretending to read a newspaper. “You didn’t really think that I’d let you get away, did you?” he smiled . “I told you, I like you, and I need you to write my story, to tell the world about me, so that I can live on forever in their hearts and minds. I will be immortal.” I sat up and studied him, trying to understand “But people have written about you, lots of people. Besides, you already seem to be immortal-most evil things are.” That last part slipped out of my mouth before I could stop myself, and I cringed, not knowing what to expect. Instead he laughed, a deep, throaty laugh. “ Yes, I have been a footnote in history, and people have written about me, which is how I have the little bit of power that I do now, however, I want more. I want to be free to walk the world in nightmares, to touch, and to continue my great work. Like anything evil, I need them to fear me, and to love fearing me. “He smiled broadly, his teeth sparkling white and seeming strangely sharp.
I shook my head, and tried to wrench up my bravery “I won’t help you with that, you know I won’t. I came to write about your victims, not about you, they deserve the attention, you’ve had enough already. “ he was grinning now, and his eyes were looking straight into my very being “Of course you will, in fact, you will come to love the thing you think you hate.. the fear.. you will need it. It’s why I picked you, you came to look horror in the face, so now you are. I know you like it.” I shook my head, but deep inside I knew there was some truth to what he was saying. My whole life I had looked into the darkness of history, and written about it. Maybe I was a kind of monster too, perpetuating horrors like his. He just nodded, as if he knew my thoughts. “All humans are filled with the potential for both good, and evil, and we make a choice to feed one or the other, I think you have chosen. “ he taunted me.
I woke in the hotel room, with the grim realization that I would never escape. I was now wearing the silver ring with the death’s head. It gleamed under the light as I opened my computer, and started a new document file. I felt dazed as I began to type, the voice in my head weakly protesting, as the keys tapped under my fingers. A crazy hope had blossomed in my tired mind, a hope that if I did as he asked, and fed the beast, maybe, just maybe, he would let me go.
The voice in my head told me he wouldn’t, but I still held out hope, as I typed, describing my terrible journey. I could hear them screaming in my head now, his victims. He showed me such things, terrible things, as babies being ripped from their mothers and stomped into the ground, their tiny skulls bursting like ripe melons.. so much blood. When I wasn’t typing, he was with me, gently stroking my hair, kissing me. I didn’t need to sleep to see him now, he was always with me.
I saw skeletons, covered in the barest layer of flesh, moving rocks from one end of the camp to another, then back again, blood oozing from raw fingers, the skeletons that were once Catholic priests, who had tried to help their neighbors, the Jews, now looked at me with hollow eyes, accusing, damning me. My words would perpetuate their suffering and give strength to their tormentor, but still I type. …I type about the damp bricks, and the feeling of earth shovelled over bodies.. most of you think they all burned, but they didn’t.. mass graves were dug to dispose of the human refuse, and some, shot and dying, had their throats filled with damp soil, muffling their screams as they suffocated amongst the bodies. I have relived their last moments, he has made me. Again and again, I will never be free.
When my mind is not full of corpses, he is kind to me, he feeds me, and caresses me. He says he cares for me, and that I almost done. I can rest soon. He promises.
I have been typing for days, and I can continue no longer. I realized today, as he stroked my cheek, that I am beginning to fall in love with him, and it sickens me. I am going to throw myself off the hotel balcony today. I cannot bear it any longer. Please, dear reader, forgive me, for what I have done here..
Today I jumped from the balcony of my hotel. I felt a rush of air, and my skull hit the pavement below with a sickening crack. I felt pain for a moment, but then it was gone. People screamed, as my meat sack of a corpse thudded in front of them.. it was beautiful. I know now that he was right, I made a choice, a choice to embrace the evil. Now I will walk in his world, with him, and help him to finish his great work, the work of the devil inside us all. I’m so glad you are reading my story, I need you to read it. So he can live through you. Sweet dreams.