Like the last mornings, I am woken with a loud roar. Slowly I straighten up and rub my sleepy eyes. “They will be ready in ten minutes! Did you hear me?!“, I hear someone calling. It’s probably my father. I stretch out and jump from the bunk bed. When I notice that my best friend is still sleeping, I have to laugh. “Jacob! Wake up, we have to get out soon,” I say and shake him. Shocked, he wakes up and looks at me with big eyes. “Good morning, late riser.” Jacob pushes me away and gets up. “Why do we have to get up so early today? Is something on?” he asks sleepily. I shrug my shoulders briefly, button up my field-gray Breecheshose and slip my white jersey over my naked torso, my SS uniform on top. It doesn’t take long, I’m already finished. There is not much time left. So I go outside, stand next to Jacob and put on my black-painted steel helmet. Good, I’m all dressed. Once more I tidy up my black belt before the SS-Hauptsturmführer arrive. At the moment everyone is standing there, straight as a die. “You will now enter your new assignment site. It is located in the center of Warsaw, west of the Old Town in the Wola district between Gdansk Station and the old Warsaw Central Station Główna and the Jewish Cemetery. You will soon realize that there are many people living in the Jewish residential district here in Warsaw. But this will not influence your work. Remember, we work in the sense of the final solution of the youth question. It is important that you show this scum who is in charge here. After all, you decide on life and death. Do not act with compassion. “Do what is best for your country.” I stand in the line, look briefly at the other faces, nobody twists a muscle. We all know what’s coming. I’m scared. I have never had to punish a person or treat them like an animal. “Remember, you are in the Jewish compartment. This is where you will stay for the next few months!” SS-Hauptsturmführer is passing close by. “Do not touch these animals! They are unkempt, dirty and sick”, he shouts loudly. Anyone would flinch at this volume. Not us. We must not. Show no weakness. “Do you understand?” shouts the SS Hauptsturmführer. “Jawohl!” we call back. “Dismissed!” My comrades are running. I wait a moment until my best friend is standing next to me and go off with him. Tense I hold my rifle in my hands, look around me, watch the emaciated people. “We are right at the entrance. It’s going to be tough,” whispers Jacob. I nod briefly. Uneasy, I walk past the countless people who have to live together in the smallest of spaces. There are far too many. Everywhere I see dirty, emaciated faces. I stay as close to Jacob as possible. The other comrades make sure that we have enough room to walk. If this is not the case, the Jew who is in the way is beaten to the side with a rifle. “We are here. Each of you will now assemble a group of ten people when they come out of the transporters. Then you will take them to the reloading point.” As with every command, we will obey and form a group. I go first while Jacob walks behind. Every look that falls on me is either filled with hate or fear. Swallowing hard, I lead the people who have to follow me to the reloading point. Again we soldiers form a line. One of my comrades explains to us that we write down the names of the individual people. Jacob and I sit down behind a table. We wait until the numbering starts. An experienced soldier takes over the task for us so that we know how to do it next time. “You have to be consistent! Don’t take any shit from them! If they don’t react quickly enough, they will be beaten,” he whispers. I drive through my brown hair, trying to hide my nervousness. Jacob looks at me with his green eyes, gives me an encouraging smile. He is afraid. So am I. Even if I am supposed to follow what is happening, I don’t want to look into the eyes of people who have nothing left. I am too nice. My father has shouted this in my face countless times. You have to become harder! Nobody cares about your good heart. It must be freezing cold. That’s why he arranged for me to be admitted to the SS. I had no other choice. “Well, now we come to the women,” my comrade explains. When I look up, I look into hazel eyes. Hidden behind the blonde hair, it blows lightly in her face. I am speechless. No idea why. The young girl looks at us. I can read her eyes. It is filled with hatred. Contempt. Hard to miss. “Your last name?” my comrade asks. The stranger looks between us. Our eye contact makes me feel different. I feel... strange. “Didn’t you hear my question?” She looks at him, pulls the corners of her mouth slightly upwards. “That was a question?” Her tone of voice. Bitchy. Provocative. The comrade stands up and slaps her face. Immediately I want to jump up, rebuke him and ask the girl if she is okay, but my best friend prevents me. “That is normal. This is how they treat the Jews,” he whispers. I look at him without understanding. “Why? It’s horrible!“, I reply. Jacob nods. “I know, but that is our job. Welcome to the Warsaw residential district.” I say no more. I look at the girl again. With glassy eyes she stares into the distance. The handprint on her cheek is hard to miss. “So, your last name?” “Schmidt.” Again I am speechless. Even though she is injured right now, her voice has an incredible strength in it. She is fascinating. I can hardly take my eyes off her. I look into her eyes. Lost. She seems so cold and destroyed. Who did this to her? We did, didn’t we? I think we did. I can’t imagine how the other men treat her. “Where are you from?” She looks down at us. “Germany.” Her voice gives me goose bumps. It’s strange. And probably wrong, but this girl has my full attention. My buddy is running his mouth. “Very unusual. Well, welcome to Warsaw. And now go to the others,” he instructs her, but she doesn’t even think about it. Icy cold she stops in front of us, grabs a hand briefly and pulls someone forward. My comrade wants to slap her again, but this time I stop him. Just before he strikes, I stop his hand. Again I look into the hazelnut brown eyes that shine with fear. Is she grateful to me? I do not know. My blue eyes won’t leave her. My comrade grabs me by the collar. “I was like that then, too. You have to get tough! There’s no mercy in the SS!“, he hisses. I nod briefly, trying not to attract attention. Quite normal behavior for a newcomer. “Take the three to this compartment.” We get a note pressed into our hands, on which a best compartment from the residential district is written. “Yes, sir!” I say. Jacob leads the three ladies out of the crowd. I try to put on a neutral expression, even when the girl looks at me. She holds the older lady’s hand. The way is long and because of constant breaks we need even longer. I become impatient. Every soldier can see us. If my father, the SS-Hauptsturmführer, sees us like this, he shoots the old lady. The thought gives me goose bumps all over my body. I must not let it come to that. I go closer to the girl, I immediately notice that she is afraid. “Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you”, I whisper. She laughs. Confused, I look at her. “You can save your pity,” hisses the young girl. I move away from her, looking at her with a serious look. I feel a rage inside me. I don’t know where she suddenly comes from. “Then move your ass, or I’ll kick you to your compartment myself,” I yell. The three flinch together. My best friend looks at me in surprise, goes on with the Jewish women. I stop for a moment and try to catch my breath. That was not me just now. I am not like that. The looks of the other Jews do not escape me. There is no one standing around me. They have all taken a big step aside. I look around me, I meet crying children’s eyes, emaciated people with torn clothes. “Well done Johann!“, a soldier says to me and pats me on the shoulder. I smile for a moment, but the countless glances of the people around me almost drive me crazy. “What are you looking at?!“, the soldier shouts and intimidates the Jews with his rifle. I can’t bear the looks, the screams of fear, and I run with quick steps to Jacob. Neither of us is talking to the Jewish women. I know that a conversation is useless. All those who are here are in our power. Everything is taken from them. Not even their own dignity is left to them. It must be terrible. So I should save my gibberish. “Here is your lodging. In that house you will find your beds,” Jacob explains. The blond girl disappears with the old woman. But the brown-haired girl stays with us. She looks at my best friend. “Thank you. You were clearly nicer than the other men. I apologize for the behavior of my friend. The woman who is with us is her mother. And she would protect her with her life. That’s why she has such a smart mouth.” Jacob and I exchange a look. We are both surprised. They do not seem to hate us. “No problem. Let us know if you need anything,” my friend whispers quietly. The girl smiles and disappears. Stunned, he looks after her. Thoughtfully, I look at him. “Were we too nice?“, he asks me softly. I shake my head. “No, I don’t think so”, I mumble. Jacob looks at me, we move away from the house, look around. “I never thought that one day I would be standing in the Warsaw residential district. That I would be killing people. That I should punish people who have done nothing. I don’t understand it, Johann.” You speak my mind. “I mean, look around you. There are people lying in the streets, covered with newspaper. They are dying here, and everyone is happy about it. That’s sick.” Towards the end, his voice is only a soft whisper. I know that he is right. But what can we do about it? There’s nothing we can do about it. “Come on, we should go back to the group,” I say and put my hand on his shoulder. He appreciates this gesture. As we leave the street, I turn around again, look at the house where the blonde-haired girl lives. She is standing with her friend. And for a brief moment our eyes meet again. Again this strange feeling in me. It is like a tingling. “There you are,” cries my father. At the moment my posture is as straight as a die. I look into his blue eyes. Ice cold. No emotion. He comes to me, straightens my collar and smiles. “A soldier told me that you rebuked these little Jewish women. Very well, my son.” I would like to be happy about his statement, but there is nothing. Just the question I ask myself, what is the point of depriving others of all their rights? “Since you have done such good work, I grant you leave. You can give me your rifles and helmet, I’ll stow them away for you when you come back tomorrow. You may go home for today!” I’ll have to study his every word carefully. He never does nice things like that without expecting something in return. “Come directly to the reloading point tomorrow morning,” my father says and leaves. I look after him in disbelief. Jacob jumps joyfully beside me. “How great it is! Come on!” He pulls me by the sleeve through the crowd towards the exit, to the wire fence. Before we can go outside, an old woman throws herself at me. I scare myself to death. She begs me. But I cannot understand her language. I only hear her whimpering, see my comrades pulling the old woman away from me. Rigor mortis. Her thin, wrinkled face is burned into my memory. My best friend pulls me outside, tries to talk to me. I hear nothing, feel my pounding heart. My hands are sweaty. The incident just now scared me. Great fear. I did not even defend myself. “Hey! Johann! Wake up!” Jacob holds my face in his hands, shaking me. “Yes, I’m here...” I stutter. “Everything okay? Are you all right?” he asks anxiously. I run away from the entrance to the neighbourhood. “Well, I guess so.” “That won’t happen again. Don’t worry.” He tries to calm me down. I shrug my shoulders for a moment and walk beside him. What if something like this happens to me when I’m alone? Do I have to shoot then?
“You know my place, make yourself comfortable,” says Jacob and changes. I have already changed and am now wearing a white t-shirt and loose black pants. The weather today suits my mood. It’s dull and cloudy. “You’ve been in your thoughts all day. What’s wrong?” he looks at me worried, sits down in front of me. I shrug my shoulders. “I have to get used to all this. It hurts my heart when I see the people. They have done nothing, they are kept like animals and slaughtered. How scared do you think they are of us?!” Desperately I roam through my brown hair. “And you don’t want that. You don’t want them to be afraid of you or hate you,” he deduces from my statement. I look into his eyes. “Yes, that’s it.” Jacob sits down beside me, puts his arm around me. “We’re not like the others and we never will be, okay? We hereby pledge that we will never hurt anyone!” He puts his little finger out to me. Smiling, I peck my finger into his. “I promise.”
It’s a warm morning mixed with sunshine and light fog. I walk through the surprisingly empty streets of the neighborhood. Each of us soldiers has a certain compartment, which he has to patrol once a week in the morning and in the evening. I cannot avoid it at all. That’s part of it, Johann. Getting tough. This is your life now. Even if you don’t want to be like the others, you must follow the commands. “The Jews have no business on the streets in the morning. If you see someone, you rebuke him. If the Jew disobeys, you shoot him.” My sweaty hands clasp my rifle. Inside, I pray that no one will cross my path. I try to keep my gaze straight. If I looked down, I would see the bodies, or people about to die. Besides, the stench is disgusting. But I can explain to myself directly where it comes from. The Jews have no toilets, nothing. That is why they dispose of their excrement in a pile. Kinky, but the only possibility for them. With slow steps I walk on. The weather seems so nice, but nothing is nice here. Do people sometimes laugh, or do they have the desire to die? Absent-mindedly I bump into someone. I want to apologize, but I realize again that manners have no place here. I prepare myself to raise my voice, but as my gaze falls on the hazel eyes, the urge to be consistent disappears. My voice is like extinct. Wordlessly I look at the girl. She stands in the light of the sun. Her blonde hair sparkles, and it seems as if she has a touch of the color copper in her hair. Fascinated, I look at her. A dainty face, high cheekbones, snub nose, narrow red lips and pale skin. I stand before her and just look at her. “Hello,” I say in a low voice. The girl frowned, her arms crossed in front of her chest. She protects herself. A step back, creates a healthy distance between us. I clear my throat, try to look at her seriously. “You have no business here.” She raises an eyebrow. I try to stay firm. Her almost perfect appearance makes it a lot harder for me. “Either you tell me what you’re doing here, or I’ll have to...” I fall silent. The girl smiles amused. “Teach me manners? Drag me back into the house by myself? Or shoot me?” she says spitefully. I swallow. Her grin again. I have the feeling that she is only pretending to be so tough. The truth is she’s scared. “Shall I take you back?” I ask. She looks me in the eyes, looks at me pejoratively and wants to pass me by. I grab her arm immediately. Why is she acting up? “Don’t play with my patience,” I threaten. She swallows, looks at my hand. My gaze wanders through the area, nobody is watching us, good. “I’m going to let you go and we’ll go to your compartment, understand?” No answer. As soon as I let go of her, she wants to run away. This time my grip is strong, it probably hurts. “Cut the crap! Any other soldier would have shot you already!” The girl tries to break free, but she can’t. “Why don’t you shoot me? You’re just like the others! Sooner or later you’ll treat us like shit, too!” she whimpers. I hear the fear, the despair, the suffering, in her voice. It almost breaks my heart when I see a tear running down her cheek. I let go of her. Just like that. She is surprised, looks at me with big eyes. The next moment I don’t understand what she is doing. She kneels before me, closes her eyes, lets her single tears flow down her cheeks. It takes a while before I understand that she is expecting to be shot. This realization feels to me like a punch in the pit of my stomach. She must, no, she should, know that I am not like the others. Carefully I touch her arm, pull her up and walk the empty streets with her. I see her look. Relief. Confusion. She cannot judge me. To be honest, neither can I right now. But I feel comfortable with the decision not to punish her. “Where are you taking me?“, the girl asks in a low voice. For a moment I look at her, feel that strange tingling sensation again. I quickly lift my gaze and walk on. We stop in front of her house. Speechless, she looks at me. I would have liked best to talk to her, to tell her that I would never hurt her. But this goes too far, so I want to leave her alone again. Her quiet “Thank you” brings a smile to my lips. I hide it from her, answer with a cool “No problem,” and leave. What she doesn’t know is that all the way back, I have to smile. Maybe... yes, maybe she will notice that I am quite okay.
Jacob was waiting for me. He says he was worried about me being gone so long. My patrol had already been over, but the incident with the girl made me lose track of time. My best friend looks at me sceptically, pondering, and wanders thoughtfully through his blond hair. “What are you grinning at?” he asks me quietly. I catch myself thinking about the girl again and again. It is almost impossible for me to think of anything else. When my father suddenly stands with us, my smile disappears. “I heard that you taught a Jewish woman manners. I am proud of you!” He smiles at me and disappears. Confused, I look behind him. Was anyone watching me this morning? Did anyone see us? “You did what?“, my best friend asks dissipated. I look at him and immediately know what he is thinking. “For God’s sake, no! Not the way you think!” I say quietly. Jacob and I move away from the others. “Well?” “So it was like this, I was walking through the streets and suddenly there was this girl. You know, the blonde we put in the compartment yesterday. Anyway, she was arguing with me and I grabbed her when she tried to run away. She didn’t understand how dangerous her reckless behavior was! So I wanted to lead her to her house, she thought I was going to shoot her and kneeled down in front of me... All I did was take her back to her accommodation. Jacob stares at me with his mouth open. Did I do something wrong? “what is it?” Nervously, I rub my hands. “You dared to break the rules! You didn’t care if anything happened to you, as long as the girl was okay!” I look at him speechlessly. “So I’m right,” he whispers. I shake my head. “Bullshit!” My best friend wants to argue with me, but I won’t let him and join my comrades. “I won’t forget that so quickly!” Jacob whispers in my ear. I swallow and hope that he doesn’t get my thoughts.