Chapter 23: Sorry
“But sir, I am German. I was born in Germany, and so was my family, I’m a German too!” Sara protested.
“Miss, I already told you I cannot let you and those other Jews in, I’m not allowed to do that!” the heavily-armed guard replied.
“Where am I to go, then? I have nowhere to go, I need to get back into my country!” she said to him.
“You should have thought about that before you left for France,” he told her.
“Sir, please, I have nowhere to go out here, it’s the middle of the night, please...” Sara begged.
“I’m sorry. Look, girl, it’s not up to me. I do feel sorry for you, and if I could I would let you in. But I have four mouths to feed and I cannot lose my job. I am sorry,” he seemed sincerely apologetic.
Sara was in no man’s land, literally. She stood at the French-German border, where border patrol was refusing Jews entry to the country on the German side and on the French side. She had left Germany to find her French aunt in Mulhouse, but she discovered that her aunt had moved to Paris and she was out of money to travel that far. People in vehicles weren’t being checked as much, but anyone on foot had to show their identification card. Her card had a large star of David on it, even though she had never even practiced Judaism in her life, even though it was only because her grandfather had been born Jewish. None of that mattered now, because neither France or her birth country would let her in. She knew it was the same everywhere else, and that she would have to end up living somewhere illegally, like a dirty rat nobody liked.
Except there had been somebody who had liked her. He had loved her. She threw her bag on the ground and collapsed on the soft, green grass. It was a warm summer night, yet in the middle of that field there was a wonderful breeze. She would just have to sleep there, under the moon and stars, and hope for a plan in the morning. Her stomach growled fiercely. The French and German guards in the distance were rejecting more Jews. They belonged nowhere.
When the sun began to rise, she was awakened by the same guard who had rejected her. “Hey, Miss, I can’t let you in but I can try to help you. Travel south to Bern, the Swiss aren’t patrolling their border. If you don’t want to stay in Switzerland, there’s a train in Bern that will take you through Germany into Poland. Poland is probably the safest place for you at this moment. Don’t get off the train in Germany, you will get in trouble,” he said and as he walked away, something dropped from his hand. Money. “Thank you,” Sara managed to say, but he was already gone.
Grandmother Gerda was preparing her specialty Schnitzeln. Ivy had been observing and helping her. Ivy could see how worried her Oma was whenever she looked at her. Her grandfather had been having chest pains following a recent heart attack. His doctor had said that he would recover well, and while Ivy felt positive and confident in the doctor’s words, Gerda did not. Ivy attempted to take her mind off her preoccupation, “Oma, why don’t you like my Vati? I’ve asked Mother but she never tells me.”
“What? Who says I don’t like your father?”
“It’s really obvious, Oma.”
“Oh darling, I suppose you’re old enough to understand. You see, I am a stubborn old woman. I refuse to admit it when I am wrong. When I first met your father, when he was asking Antoine for permission to date your mother, I didn’t like him at first sight. His skin was so dark he might as well have been African! He would spend his days out in the ocean, fishing, and I just did not want that dark-skinned fisher-boy dating my Simone. Not only because his tan was so dark, but also because I didn’t consider his job a proper one, not decent enough for my daughter. I wanted your mother to marry another man, an Austrian heir, no less. Still, your mother fell in love with your father, and there was nothing I could do,” Gerda told her.
“After all these years, that’s why you don’t like him? Oma, my father’s a good man,” Ivy said.
“I know that, but I refused to admit it. Your mother has always resented me a bit for not approving of Peter, and although I do secretly approve of him, especially after the beautiful grandchildren he gave me, it’s simply too late for me to ask for forgiveness,” she replied.
“Nonsense Oma! It’s never too late to ask for forgiveness,” Ivy told her.
“If only that were true, my dear, if only...”
He was surrounded by dark trees. A woman screamed in the distance. With every breath he took, her scream grew louder, closer. Kristian looked around, looking for the source of such a horrible sound and then she appeared. Sara, in a wedding gown. She looked beautiful, like an angel. There was now silence. “Baby...” he put his hand on her cheek and she leaned into it. Suddenly, blood began pouring out from her white dress. Kristian stepped back, scared. More blood, she looked frightened. He looked down at his hands and they were covered in blood too. Had he done it? “No, no, no, no...” he woke up out of breath.
He sat up on his bed and ran his hands through his hair. It was 4:30 in the morning, still dark. He doubted he could go back to sleep. That wasn’t the first nightmare of its kind he’d had. In fact, since his second day at Sachsenhausen he’d been having nightmares and restless nights. Some nights he would simply lie in bed awake until the morning, unable to sleep, digesting all the things he’d done during the day.
His second day, or first work day, had been the worst thus far. He had never witnessed so much pain in one day. Carver said the violence took some getting used to, that even with the most pathetic of animals it was still a difficult task to be violent and emotionally detached. They had just finished their breakfast and Kristian was talking to Officer Hoch, the one who had been friendly and welcoming. As they were leaving the table, Carver ordered Kristian to the ‘A zone’ for a special task.
Two prisoners stood on the death strip. They were barefoot and naked except for their white underwear. Their hands tied behind their backs. “Ah there you are, Officer Köhler. These two pigs tried to escape last night while they were returning from the forest. Normally we would hang them in front of the barracks, to set an example, but I figured you’re new here and we want to see what you’re made of!” Carver said.
“Are they Jews?” Kristian asked.
“Worse, actually. One is a rapist and the other a communist.”
Kristian nodded. He knew what he had to do and he knew there was no escaping it.
“You two pigs turn around and kneel!” Carver shouted.
Some of the crowd of prisoners that had just finished doing their morning roll call were gathering, probably out of curiosity since they knew Kristian was new. Some SS officers also stood around to watch.
Kristian had only ever fired guns at practice targets, but never at humans. Don’t think of them like that, one is a rapist. What if it had been Ivy he... Kristian felt disgusted, he regretted eating breakfast. He pointed his pistol at one of their heads. Just do it, they’re watching... I’m taking too long... I can’t... Yes, yes I can. Just press the trigger... He wanted to close his eyes, but he needed to aim. I’m sorry, he thought and shot him. He fell to the ground instantly, while the next man whimpered. Kristian then shot him.
What followed that day and the next, and all the other days, was simply scarring. Oddly enough, the more prisoners he shot, both to maim and to kill, the easier it became to pull the trigger. Yet it became harder to sleep at night. On one occasion, one prisoner made a run for it when the back gates opened to allow a car in. The tower guards were about to shoot when the camp commandant raised his hand to halt them. The officers and guards all looked confused, the prisoner was getting away. But the commandant had whispered something in Carver’s ear and soon enough two massive German Shepherds were chasing after the runaway.
The prisoner’s malnourished potato diet was poor compared to the two strong, large dogs that ate beef on a daily basis. They caught up to him in seconds and jumped on him. Kristian and other guards ran after them, and when they got there they saw the dogs tearing the man apart. They had been trained to kill ruthlessly, just like Kristian was being trained. He wondered if he’d end up like that too; a beast that only knew how to pull out throats. He cried himself to sleep that night.
On another occasion, the camp received a shipment of military boot samples. The prisoners were to test them on different surfaces. The prisoners chosen for the job walked around the camp for hours on end. They walked on sharp rocks, burning coal, nails, and on glass shards. Some shoes were tough enough that their soles remained in good condition after many kilometers, but most prisoners ended up with nails and glass in their feet. Some died from bleeding, others from exhaustion, and others died later from infection.
The camp had a ranking system for prisoners. The higher the rank, the more despised the prisoner was. They had a triangle badge next to their number on their striped blue and white uniform to mark their rank. At the top were Communists, with red triangles, and criminals, in green, then homosexuals, in pink triangles, then Jehova’s Witnesses, in purple, and lastly Jews, with yellow badges. The red and pink badge prisoners often had to endure the most pain and humiliation. Kristian heard that in other camps they had even more identification badges, such as black for Gypsies and the mentally or physically disabled.
By late July the camp received female and infant prisoners for the first time. Kristian had just begun getting used to living with himself, he had stopped showing signs of weakness. He no longer hesitated, and furthermore, he had become as heartless as the camp commander himself. But he knew he would need to toughen up all over again now that women and children were involved. Somehow.
The worst part was having to keep it all to himself. He couldn’t talk to anyone about the pain he felt, not even Hoch, for he didn’t want to seem weak. Hoch was a decent guy, so Kristian figured he struggled with the same pain every day. He sometimes wrote letters to his family; although he didn’t write often to avoid inventing more lies. He knew the letters coming in and going out were all checked, and phone calls were monitored, so just a hint of the truth would put them all in danger.
Kristian wanted to tell Ivy, though, that their lives weren’t what they seemed. That the Führer wasn’t who he seemed. That he had set up a trap for Germany and they had all fallen for it, and there was no escaping the trap. They had been desperate and naive, and the Führer’s words had given the country hope. They had given Kristian hope. But he had lost his love to the Reich, and now he was losing his humanity too.
Jehova’s Witnesses weren’t targeted in the Third Reich, but the men did sometimes end up in camps because they refused to join the military, which was considered a criminal act.