The investigating SS officer was assigned an empty room on the 3rd floor to interview staff. Jurgen was the first.
“We grew up not too far from each other,” he said, answering the first question. “Our parents were friendly and knew each other and then we went to school together.”
“Did you owe him anything?”
Confused, “What do you mean?” Jurgen asked.
The officer was handsome; tall and strong and about ten years his junior and Jurgen thought about how many women he may have impregnated. Being a Nazi Stud might have been his job.
“Do you feel like you got this position, or any position, because he got it for you? Did you land here because you had a powerful friend?”
Jurgen laughed. “Yes,” he started. “Of course, I mean, I don’t know where I would have ended up without him choosing me for this position but if you are asking me if I’m grateful for being pulled away from my wife and instead of raising kids at home being assigned to raise them in this laboratory, being asked to have sex and fertilize women I don’t know, then no, I am not grateful for any favors that the Commander has given me. I wanted no part of it, and he knew that, and threatened me with other assignments, less desirable ones, if I didn’t accept.”
Later, Hilda sat in the chair and answered questions about Jurgen. “He cares about the Program and the children, and about Germany. But he doesn’t care about the Commander. He always knew things would not end well for him,” she stated. “And Germany.”
“You?” the officer questioned.
“Me? I’ve been very loyal to the Party and always believed in what we were doing and I would think my record will show that. I’ve done whatever was asked, and some are things that I will deeply regret, maybe, one day, but I don’t know. I did them, and I did them well,” Hilda said, her voice rising. “And I hope it says that in my file.”
“No, I’m sorry,” the officer corrected her. “I was asking if Jurgen loved you; you said he loves no one, does that include you?”
Amidst a want to cry, Hilda composed herself. She didn’t know. “Jurgen and I…” she began. “We’ve been through much here. If it’s over, and he is free to go wherever and takes me with him, then I will say ‘yes’ he loves me. But until that time, I don’t know. Not in this place. He told me years ago that there was no love here, and I didn’t believe it then. But I do now.” She took a deep breath. “Doing what we are asked to do here – it’s hard to imagine a person being the same on the outside; feeling the same as they do here. But,” she sighed, “I don’t know.”
He smiled. “Okay, but would he lie for you?” the officer asked.
“Yes,” Hilda answered without thinking. What could Jurgen have lied about regarding her, she wondered. “Yes,” Hilda said again, this time a little remorse. “He would.”
The officer nodded. “Then, my dear, he does love you,” he said and leaned back in his chair. “Tell me, did you spend any time with the Commander?”
Her cheeks went flush. “What do you mean?” she asked weakly.
“That note got to Dr. Roth, somehow,” he said, looking at her closely. “And I have read your file, and I do know that you were a big supporter of the Commander’s. And we know he was a big fan of yours, as he wrote glowing reports about your work.”
“Yes, and so it seems to us that if anyone was to do him a favor that you may be that person for him. Would you?”
Hilda looked at the floor. “No, I wouldn’t.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, leaning towards him. “After all, he was your commander.”
“Yes, I’m sure,” Hilda stated, looking the man in the eye and taking a deep breath. “That man raped me. He came up to me, and raped me.” She wiped her cheek but there were no tears. What? She couldn’t cry? Her chest heaved at the thought and she struggled for composure. “Once upon a time I thought he was a great man, but I no longer do.” Hilda straightened. “And if the Party told me he’s a criminal, I’d treat him as one. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.”
A sleepless night gave Jurgen time to reflect on the previous night; another truck had come and parked and a few boys were loaded into the back before it departed, down the driveway. There weren’t many, but any was too much. Where they were going was awful and he had no choice but to drink.
There were no trucks on this night and he didn’t feel the need to have too much. Things were slowing down, Jurgen hoped, as he enjoyed seasonal scents drift into the room. The war was ending, he could feel it, and that pleased him. Now survive these last days. His run-in with the Commander was not good; it brought the attention he avoided and mustn’t happen again. He walked to desk, opened drawer and ran his fingers over the pistol’s body and up its barrel. Metal, he thought. A gun is solid.
Jurgen went back to the window and resumed staring at trees lining the driveway. He hadn’t been down the dirt path since he last visited his wife – it’d been a long time. Where would he go after it was over? Did it matter, he asked himself. Just run free, down the path and through the shadows and into darkness. Just run far away. But wait, something was there. What? He blinked and there it was again, a movement. He scanned grounds and carefully pushed the window further open and heard a rustle.
Trees were intently surveyed. Silence. Maybe it was nothing and he lit a cigarette. The smoke tasted good. Maybe it was an escapee. Good, he said and relaxed. Good for them. He would not interfere, and smiled. If this war was going to go on, maybe he should escape. Take Hilda and the boy with him and run down the driveway and into the hills and never looking back. But no, Hilda wouldn’t leave. Again something moved. And it wasn’t heading away.
Excited, he extinguished cigarette and grabbed the pistol. “I gave you that with the promise that you will use it only to shoot the Commander and no one else here at the Castle, is that understood?” Dr. Murdock said.
Examining the gun, “What about myself?” inquired Jurgen, grinning.
“No, you can’t shoot anyone here with that gun,” replied the doctor. “And that includes yourself. Don’t do that – is that understood?”
His heart beat was rapid. The Commander! Damn him for coming back. Jurgen left the room and hustled down the hall and stairs, a hand in pocket, fingers on pistol. Carefully he slipped into night and hid behind a tree before scurrying behind a neatly stacked wood pile. Control breathing. He focused and pulled out the gun. Ears alert. Ha, his wife, Jurgen thought as he held pistol tight, if only she could see him now.
“You? Oh Jurgen, you are not the hero type. You are the watching type with comments afterwards, that’s the type you are.”
There were footsteps and he peered over woodpile. The intruder wore a thick coat and a low pulled hat and carefully moved from tree to tree before leaving cover and scampering to the Castle. Konrad, Jurgen thought, the bastard has come for the boy.
The figure moved past the woodpile and Jurgen could see there was a gun. He steadied. Was it the Commander? His school chum? The boy that pulled him from the river? The man that assigned him to the Castle? The person that insisted he produce a baby with a woman he didn’t love while denying him from being with the woman he did? He was ready, and carefully rose from behind the pile, aimed and fired. The man spun around and Jurgen shot again and watched the body drop. He was big and strapping – it wasn’t the Commander! The victim held a gun and it began to rise and Jurgen fired once more, and the intruder was dead.
Extra lights came on and people looked out their windows and a guard rushed to see what happened and soon Cornel Jacek was there. “Who is it?” he asked as they stood over the body.
“I heard something outside my window and grabbed my pistol,” Jurgen explained. “I thought it was the Commander.”
They brought the body into the Castle and laid it on the table where Dr. Murdock had been placed and went through the man’s pockets. “There’s nothing in here.” Cornel Jacek reported after he finished digging through his pants. He went through the jacket and pulled out an old, badly beaten photograph and looked at it closely. “Looks like a woman.”
Taking the photograph Jurgen studied it and nodded and sighed. “Yes, that is his wife and this is him,” he declared. “It is her husband and his name is Tom. He’s a Norwegian Resistance Fighter.”
“How would you know that?” questioned the Coronel.
As in his dreams, the body was tall and strong and the man appeared young and rugged. He looked like a leader! It was uncanny, thought Jurgen. There was even that kindness in his face that Helga portrayed. Moving closer, Jurgen nodded, yes that was him. His features were perfect and he looked like Konrad. “Well, she described him pretty accurately, and she warned that he’d be coming.”
He held up the picture. “She is his wife, one of the Norwegian mothers – the Viking mother to the special baby.”
“What? The Viking mother?” the Cornel asked. “Well then,” he laughed, “let’s get her to come down and identify the body.”
Jurgen shook his head. “She can’t; she was sent away to a camp.”
The Cornel smiled. “So, we don’t know for sure who this man is, correct?”
His feet, Jurgen thought. “Take his boots off,” he ordered and a young doctor removed the worn footwear. “And his socks too.”
They all gathered around the dead man and studied his feet. “What am I supposed to be seeing,” asked Cornel Jacek.
All toes were in place and Jurgen’s heart sank.
It has to be him! Jurgen looked at the Coronel. “She had mentioned some markings on his toes,” he managed. “But I don’t see them.”
There had been drinks, Jurgen reminded himself. There was noise and movement. Why did it have to be Helga’s husband? He remembered her speaking of him as they held each other. “He was capable of being so wonderful. He’s a man that does things that a man does,” Helga told him.
“Why didn’t I say, ‘halt’?”
“But you don’t know what he was going to do,” Hilda said, consoling him. She was proud of Jurgen, as were others. He had acted to protect the Castle; confronting and striking down danger. “He may have come to take Konrad,” she said. “And he might have shot you.”
“Take him?” Jurgen countered. “He’s his son – he was his father; Konrad should have been with him.”
“But you are not sure it was Tom, Jurgen. There’s no way to know.”
“He fits the description. Did you look at him? Did you see those features? He looks like the boy. The boy is his spitting image!”
Ah the boy. Her eyes looked at floor; it hurt to think about losing him. For almost five years, every morning, she wondered what would be when the war was over. She loved Jurgen, yes, but had stronger feelings for Konrad and would have a tougher time living without him and hoped they could be together. His mother and father were probably dead, but there was always something, some twist in life that she didn’t see coming and wondered what was next.
“What is it?”
Konrad was a fine boy and she wanted to see him grow into a man. Her eyes turned to Jurgen. Tall, sincere, he was a fine man, a very good man, and she put her arms around him and realized she wanted to see him grow old too. In fact, maybe it would be harder to be without Jurgen, but she wasn’t sure.
It was a warm bright day and everything appeared blossoming and green, and then the news came: The Fuehrer had taken his life and the war was ending. Germany lost. Germany had lost again! Staff members sulked and cried and Cornel Jacek wondered what was to become of him.
The Fuehrer killed himself and suicide seemed logical, he thought, sitting in the office, holding his gun. But framed family photos reminded him to do what it takes and survive. Follow orders and obey, and when it’s over... ah, damn! He knew they would get the best of him and looked at the gun again. No, he couldn’t do it and later, in quiet of night, Coronel Jacek ran into the woods.
When morning broke the staff was in disbelief. Should they run too? What would become of them? Jurgen, now the senior member, tried to gauge the situation. It was not easy. There were forty kids, ten nurses, five doctors and a handful of guards remaining. The Russians were coming and they weren’t happy. Hilda wanted Konrad, and that seemed like a good match. Jurgen wanted to go with Hilda, so he’d have to go with Konrad, and that meant he would have to think about what they did every day. How could Hilda do it? he asked himself. How could she live with herself?
She realized it was over and packed her bags and sat on her bed and waited. Numb, with tinges of sadness and hoped he would come, Hilda assumed, though they never discussed what would happen when it was over. He wasn’t going to his wife, but what if he wasn’t coming for her? Maybe he wanted to run into the woods, forget everything and start again. If so, where would she go? How would she get there? Hilda wondered. And the boy, Konrad, should she go get him? Was this her chance? Where would they go? She was scared and began to cry thinking of his life with her living in a defeated Germany and the tears trickling down cheeks, increased and it became a heavy. She didn’t care if anyone heard her sobbing; she didn’t care if she appeared weak; it felt good and she kept crying.
Despite pending personal decisions, Jurgen was able to organize the staff. All files, and papers and charts they housed, were burned. “There needs to be no evidence as to what went on here,” he instructed as the fire raged. Then Jurgen got everybody out. Some doctors and nurses took kids with them. The remaining truckload was taken to a nearby orphanage along with the clinic’s supplies. Where was Hilda? He hadn’t seen her since the night before. She is needed, but he continued to lead and when it was over grabbed Konrad and they marched to her room. There she was. Her cheeks were red. “What’s wrong? You didn’t think I was coming?”
“No, I knew you would. I’m just sad.”
He smiled and extended his hand. “Be happy that it’s over. Let’s go.” She took it and rose and together they left and after five years the Castle was left empty.
It was an April morning, two days from May, and an alarm summonsed all prisoners to the center of the camp.
Stick figures slowly walked to the meeting spot, their faces drawn and eyes sunk, having watched family, friends and neighbors around them die. Throughout his time Vladimir witnessed the occasional prisoner able to carry on, defiant to pain and exuding a high spirit. Their character made many believe they could survive. But the past months had taken their spirit away and now, no one rushed. No one had hope – no one cared about living. Vladimir was in the middle of the crowd, standing healthier than most. He helped dig a long ditch the day before and wondered if they were going to dig more. “We must keep those Russian tanks out of the camp,” the German soldier urged the day before. “Come on now, dig, dig.”
Throughout the day the shelling moved closer and Vladimir questioned why the soldier thought prisoners would care. Ditch digging? To save the Germans? He hoped this wasn’t another day of that kind of work and looked to the top of the hill. Why hadn’t the cornel sent for him? Had he done something wrong? Was it time to die? He was so hungry and dreaded the thought of more digging.
After ten minutes of waiting the cornel’s big car came down the hill and his family filed out. The wife stood at his side, and his son at hers and his younger brother at his. Cornel Schluter adjusted his jacket as the prisoners murmured; it was his first appearance in civilian clothes. “We are dead,” predicted a man standing next to Vladimir. He had few teeth left and his shirt hung from him like a dress. “The man got dressed up for it and that’s it,” he said to no one. “This is it – this is the day we die.”
The cornel’s young boy saw Vladimir and waved, but he didn’t wave back. He was dead and his friend was going to live. That’s life, and that’s what he knew and didn’t feel bitter, but they would never see each other again and therefore Vladimir didn’t see a reason to wave. He didn’t wave to his father, or his mother. When he turned to look at the Castle the boys staying behind waved from the windows, but Vladimir didn’t. He simply watched with heaviness until they were gone. Affection on that truck would have been welcome but he was better being scared and alone as it eased his next transition.
Shelling from the West grew louder. “Hitler is dead,” the cornel announced into a megaphone, but the prisoners remained silent. “Hitler is dead!” Vladimir looked around. What does that mean? he wondered and looked back to the man speaking. His son waved once more. A deep sigh escaped. He was a nice boy, one of the best friends Vladimir ever had.
“Hitler is kaput!” the cornel clarified and lowered the megaphone to search the crowd’s reaction. Nothing. Standing silently, their bodies beaten and hearts broken, they didn’t comprehend. Frustrated, he put it to his mouth again. “Kaput! Do you understand? He’s kaput!” the cornel repeated loudly. “You are all free to go as you please.” Turning away from the sun, he pointed his instrument towards horizon, and then turned back to them. “We are heading west,” he declared, “and I suggest you do the same.”
Russia had Berlin. The Allies were there too. The Germans laid down their weapons and foreign troops were hunting Nazis. The Commander took his own life after being captured by the British. They heard the news in her parent’s home in Dessau. “Coward,” Jurgen declared and laughed as Hilda sighed. “Answering for what he had done is no longer an option for the Commander, I guess” Jurgen continued. “I don’t like that! I don’t like that bastard being free!”
Jurgen knew they would have to answer for their responsibilities during the war. The Allies were there, knocking on doors and asking questions, searching, interviewing and taking people away. Everyone knew they were on their way and waited. They were close, he could sense them, and waited. People in town spoke of them and his neighbors told stories of visits and Jurgen listened, and waited. Yet, when they did knock on their door, it caught him by surprise.
For years he replayed the day: an official looking car pulled up the drive and two investigators got out of the backseat. Doors shut and a moment later there were footsteps on the porch. Then knocking. He opened the door. One man was heavy and the other was tall and handsome. Americans, he thought. They had to be American. How would they judge him? Could they understand the pressures? Did they understand duties? Were they Americans? They introduced themselves and yes, he was sure they were Amis, but it was Hilda they were there to see, and his belly queezed.
“Hilda?” he asked. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” they replied.
Questions were few; was she the nurse they sought? “Yes,” Hilda confirmed and after 20 minutes was taken away. Sending children to death was her crime and there would be a trial. She looked at Konrad and pulled him close. “It’s okay,” Hilda whispered into his ear. “I’m okay and I’ll be home soon, and you’ll be okay.” Tears streamed down her cheeks as she pulled back and looked at him. “You have Dr. Roth. Listen to him and obey him, okay.”
Jurgen looked ill as their eyes met. A smile was managed while he searched for words. But there were none. Her heart hurt and she nodded at him before looking back to the boy. “You’ll be okay,” she said softly. “You’ll be okay.”
The war was over but the road was rough and there’d be no babies for her, she realized. Denied and then committed, and now paying, it was over and she was not going to have a baby.
Jurgen stayed with Hilda’s parents for a month before moving on to his hometown to be closer to the Allied military prison. He got a job at the local hospital and Konrad started school. Their lives during the war, like most Germans, were unspoken and though they longed to see Hilda, the visits were rare as access to her was restricted.
“Where is my dad?” Konrad asked one evening.
“Your dad died,” Jurgen stated bluntly and pointed the heavens. They were seated by a small fire pit, looking at stars.
The sky was like the pillow on a sofa at Hilda’s parent’s house, Konrad thought, with the stars reminding him of its shiny beads. Time spent there was strange. Being straight from the Castle, the older people didn’t know what to think of them, and he kept close to Jurgen. They went on long walks and studied birds and trees. “I thought so,” he replied.
“Yes, I figured you did,” Jurgen said and looked at the boy. “Did you know that I shot him? Did you know that I’m the one that killed him?”
Shocked, the boy turned to Jurgen. “No. Why did you do that?” Konrad asked.
“Oh Konrad, my boy,” Jurgen explained, “it was war, and war is…” He shook his head. “Well, I deeply regret it but I thought he was a Nazi and shot him.”
“But you and Nurse Hilda, you were Nazis, I thought you told me.”
Jurgen smiled. “Well, some of us were more Nazi than others.” He watched the boy. “Does that make sense?”
“No.” Shadows cast across face and flames highlighted features. “How many men did you kill?”
“You know, I knew your father was a good man,” Jurgen said, touching Konrad’s shoulder. “He was a better man than any other man I knew. Certainly a better man than me,” he chuckled.
“You knew my dad?”
“What about my mother?” Konrad asked. “Did you shoot her too?”
“Ha – no!” Jurgen laughed. “No, your dad’s the only one I ever killed.”
Slow moved time and the first month felt like six and three years felt like seven. The boy had grown and Jurgen slightly shrunk. What would be when she was released? With much time left it might be too late for her to save them, both thought privately and spring gave way to summer and fall lead to winter and back to spring and there was summer again. It was early fall when the mail came informing them she had been released. Jurgen read the letter several times before they settled in to wait for her return.
Door shut and car moved swiftly and deep scars dominated the countryside; the lush, full trees surrounding the Castle were not found. They moved through a small, lifeless town. War is nasty, she thought but as they traveled vegetation began to sprout and in and out of shadows they cruised and Hilda began to feel better. She was going home. It was over.
Jurgen and Konrad listened carefully as the car pulled into drive. The engine stopped and there were voices and then the doors shut and they braced themselves. The boy watched the man and man focused on the knob as it began to turn. Seconds later she opened the door. “Hello,” Hilda greeted them happily. “I didn’t know if you’d be home.”
Konrad stood, but could not move. Jurgen rose and stepped, but stopped when he noticed how time had hardened her; the smooth skin and luscious hair weren’t what they’d been. Was this new? Why hadn’t he noticed during their last visit? Jurgen asked himself. Was the light so bad that he didn’t see the transformation? Five years in prison had taken a toll! But why had he expected her blue eyes to remain unchanged? Why? Why would her lips be the same fiery red and hair perfectly blonde? Looking cautiously, Jurgen became horrified; no, oh no, her lovely fingers were cracked and worn. What work had those bastards made her do? Who were these people?
“What?” Hilda asked him, her smile easy. “Isn’t anyone saying, ‘hello’?”
Yes, he thought, she looked at him and was perfect. The most beautiful woman he’d ever known. His heart accelerated. She was as beautiful as the day they met and Jurgen smiled and held out his arms. “Welcome home,” he greeted her, happily walking to Hilda. “I’ve missed you,” Jurgen said and took her body and squeezed it tightly, pressing his nose against her skin. “Oh my, you smell… different.”
“Ha,” she laughed. “Thank you. Let me bathe, won’t you.”
Yes, it was her and she was heavenly. The sound of her voice and the laugh! Yes! Jurgen kissed her cheek gently, “I’m happy to see you,” he said.
“Thank you,” she replied as they separated. “I’ve missed you too.”
“It’s been hard, you know.”
“Yes, I know and I’m sorry,” she said and kissed him on the lips. “But it’s good to be home.” Hilda looked at Konrad. Being able to return and pick the boy up and hold him helped keep her sane while incarcerated, but she now realized he’d grown too big. “How are you, young man?” she asked. “Are you going to come to me or not?”
During the five years since the Castle layers had been unpeeled and an awareness of his past gleaned. Sweet memories of his mother’s love reminded him she wasn’t coming back, and he wasn’t Hilda’s child either. Jurgen spoke of his father in glowing terms, but Konrad only knew him as dead. The measuring and attention in the clinic were intense, but why was he there? What had he done? He was “special” then, but not now? Measured then, but not again? His movements were fretted over but now nothing he did was noticed. The day Jurgen announced the war was over, Konrad remembered asking, “Why?” as he was scooped up and taken outside. They got into a car and began driving away. “Why?”
“Because it is over,” Jurgen replied.
Two years later: “Why am I no longer special?”
“Because it is over.”
“Is that why I’m no longer measured?”
“Yes. That is over also. Those parts of your life, and mine, are done. That was part of the war and the war is over.”
It made no sense. “Yes, you are a special boy!” the Commander exclaimed, walking into his room. Where was that man? Wondered Konrad. Would he have better answers than Jurgen? Or, was he dead too? Konrad’s questions came and went, but were always there. Why he no longer special? The boys and girls at school never mentioned getting raised in a clinic or being measured. Why was he measured?
Sun streamed through window near the front door and he looked at Hilda; the void left by her imprisonment came to him hard and Konrad felt his body tremble. It was not easy being without her and seeing Hilda made the agony real; the loneliness and suffering, and he ran and squeezed her tight. “I missed you,” Konrad said, burying his head into her midsection. “I’ve missed you so much.”
After leaving the camp Vladimir lived with a family and they clothed and fed him but wouldn’t send him to school; he was there to work. Day in, and day out, he labored. Mixed in were beatings and holidays and after four years Vladimir had enough and left.
Standing on the road, the family’s home behind him, he thought of her; yes, Nurse Hilda, her image made him grin and he vowed that the first freedom of his life would be used to find her.
Months of traveling and living town to town, walking long distances and searching for food, accelerated his growth. Vladimir realized war was war and things were done in its name. She was following orders and doing her job. “Find children good enough to be Germans.” “Be quick and efficient in your decisions!” “Select those for adoption.” “Send others to the camps.” Her responsibility was clear, and sadly he was an other and his fate simple after he disobeyed: be loaded into a truck and sent away to die. Forgive her? Yes, he could. She had orders: “Be quick! Be accurate!” But no, Vladimir decided, he wouldn’t. No, not after enduring having his soul turned to dust and wishing he didn’t wake from her beating while lying on a board in the middle bunk next to an old man that grew thinner every night. On the other side a five-year-old boy wept nonstop. One night the old man finally died and the next evening another man took his place. That man died too, but not in their bed. He was shot outside and stacked on a pile of corpses. There was another man, and the young boy continued to cry until he was put to death. No! Stop! he pled; don’t think of the camp! Leave it behind and focus on freedom and, though the road long and direction none, enjoy the walk. Enjoy feeling feet against ground, fresh air and freedom. Enjoy searching for Hilda.
Stopping, Vladimir earned money to eat and bathe, but always returned to the road. Then he got a job on a large farm and the people were nice. It was good and Vladimir realized his body was tired and he decided to stay. Life had been tough and maybe his mind wasn’t right. Maybe he had taken what she had done too personal and again thought about duty; it was her job and it was war and maybe all could be forgotten.
Left alone to work he was happy, and there was a girl. She liked him and he liked being liked and they wed. Everything was behind him, Vladimir thought, gazing deeply into her eyes as they were proclaimed man and wife; she was perfect and he was now truly free.
Their wedding was romantic but that night the chains of his youth returned to shackle him as husband and bride, alone for the first time, undressed. “What is that? Are you Jewish?” his young wife asked, staring at his arm in horror.
“No,” he replied. “Why would you say something like that?”
“Because of the numbers on your arm,” she said, holding his wrist and studying. “My dad said Jews got tattooed with numbers in camps and that’s how you know them.”
“I’m not a Jew!”
Her light brown eyebrows narrowed. “But then, if you’re not Jewish, why were you in the camps?”
Father never returning and cries of mother, the long and lonely ride and Nurse Hilda; his head swelled as he looked at his wife and then went to the number; rod coming down on head, being back in the truck and arriving at a camp. Yes, he was branded. It was another moment when he thought his life would end shortly.
“Why were you tattooed?”
He shook and tears flowed. Sitting up, he gasped desperately for breath.
“You are crying; what is it?” she asked, concerned. “Are you okay?”
His hand extended and kept her away while he fought to control breathing. “I was there… because of… the war…” he explained and put head between knees and struggled for air. “The war…,” he repeated.
“Yes, but why?” she pushed, sitting next to him and rubbing his arched back. “Why because of the war? Why were you there? You were just a boy.”
Vladimir fought for emotional stability. He raised his head and looked at her. “I’m not Jewish, okay? I was in a clinic, waiting to be adopted, and they sent me to a camp.”
“But why?” she begged him to answer. “Why were you in a camp?”
Because your people killed my parents and took me to a clinic!
Because there was a nurse that I trusted and loved but one day I wouldn’t shovel. One day! And she punished me.
Why? My father left us to fight your invasion and then your people took me from my mother and I was pushed and pulled and never allowed to feel the pain of my loss. And then one day I didn’t shovel!
I don’t know! My German is perfect! I worked hard and there’s no accent in my speech and my hair is blond and eyes are blue. But one day I wasn’t good enough! One day I didn’t shovel and was sentenced to a life of death.
“Why?” she asked again.
“I don’t know,” he explained, breathing normal. “I was young and don’t really remember what happened, but there were a lot of rules at that clinic, I guess.” He coughed several times and cleared his throat. “I guess that’s what I remember; it may have been a rule that I didn’t follow, but I’m not really sure.”
His wife managed to let the tattoo go, for a night, but after that she couldn’t stop mentioning camps. “I have a husband that was in a camp,” she proudly told her friends and family.
“Really?” they asked, astonished. “He’s not a Jew, is he?”
“No! No, of course not,” she reasoned. “And that’s the thing.”
“Well then, is he a criminal?”
“No, he’s not that either!”
Why? Why? Camps! Camps! Camps! He didn’t want to think about the camp! But they kept asking. And she kept asking; “Why?” “What was it like?” “What did you eat?” “Did you share a room with Jews?” “What were the Jews like?”
Finally he broke and burst into a rage, sending her to cower in a corner. The urge to hurt was strong, but he couldn’t do that to her. Instead he chose to throw and break household goods, including chairs, framed photos and plates. “Please stop,” she begged.
No, he couldn’t stop and kept raging and continued destroying their home. But he wouldn’t hurt his wife. No, she was young and didn’t deserve a beating, or the fear and heartbreak that came after violence caused by a trusted loved one; no one did. However, when it was over, alone and sitting outside, Vladimir knew she’d ask “why” again and left before there’d be no choice but to beat her.
Returning to stealing and sleeping in the woods, his quest to find Hilda redoubled and down the road Vladimir traveled. Why had she done what she had done? Why? He was a boy. Taken from his home and beaten. And measured. And beaten again. Why? Visiting towns, he marched to the local hospital and asked, “Have you ever met a Nurse Hilda? We were separated during the war?”
“Her name is Hilda, she is blonde and attractive…she’s a nurse…”
Over and over he questioned.
“No,” they answered. “No.” And “no.”
Then, six years after his journey began, in a town far from his camp, a woman that worked in a hospital about thirty miles west of Nuremberg knew of a Hilda, a blonde, attractive nurse, and she pointed Vladimir in the direction of her home.
Evening peaceful, they enjoyed a family dinner. Life wasn’t perfect but Hilda couldn’t ask for anything more; her family was sitting at the round, wooden dining room table.
“Yes, sure, I enjoyed school,” Jurgen answered Konrad. “Playing mostly, I imagine. The learning was good too.” Their dog barked from outside. “But I had a lot of friends.”
Konrad shook his head. “I don’t have any friends, really.”
“No,” Konrad replied and took a bite of food. “And you know that; I’ve told you that a couple of times, at least. I told you that I asked some of the other kids if they were raised in a clinic and measured, and now they think I’m strange.”
Jurgen smiled. “You did? What did I say?”
“You don’t remember much when you drink, you know,” remarked Konrad. “But you told me that learning was good too.”
“Yes,” agreed Hilda. “Playing and friends are nice, but remember you are there to learn.”
“Did you know that Dr. Roth killed my dad?” Konrad asked and returned to his meal.
Hilda smiled. She knew the boy had been told, yet was surprised. “Yes, I did.” A sip of water. “But do you know why he did it?”
“Because he thought my dad was a Nazi.”
She nodded. “Yes, and because he thought that Nazi was coming to take you away – to harm you.”
“Have you ever killed anybody?” Konrad asked.
Catching Jurgen’s eye before focusing on the wall, did she kill, Hilda wondered. Responsible for deaths, yes, but did she kill? Hilda looked back to Jurgen. He smiled at her. “Well,” she began, turning to Konrad, “I’ve never shot anyone, if that’s what you are asking.”
“Good,” he replied. The dog barked again. “Rudi’s making a lot of noise tonight,” commented Konrad.
There was another bark. “Yes. I’ve not heard him do that,” added Hilda.
“There must be something in the yard,” added Konrad. “Maybe that raccoon has returned.”
“That dog is usually pretty quiet,” confirmed Jurgen, getting up and walking to a window. He strained to see. “I think something’s out there.”
“Really? What do you see?” asked Hilda, approaching the window. “Well you can’t see anything out there – it’s too dark.”
Konrad stood next to Jurgen and looked out another window. “I can’t see anything,” he said and the dog barked again.
“Something’s there,” Jurgen stated. “I’ll go out.” He moved to the door, and Konrad followed.
Night was dark and a chill was in the air. Jurgen blew on hands as he scanned the property. “Rudi,” he called and the dog came running, continuing to bark. “What is it?” Jurgen asked. “What’s over there, boy?”
The dog was eager and Jurgen focused on the darkness ahead. “What is it, boy?” he asked again.
“I don’t see anything,” said Konrad.
Shocked, Jurgen looked at the child. “What are you doing?” he asked, his voice was terse. “Go back inside.”
“But I want to see what’s in the yard.”
He shook his head. “Okay, but stay close,” Jurgen instructed and they walked around the corner. “Nothing here.” Stopping, they listened but there was only silence and they moved ahead two steps. Nothing. They moved a few more steps, on high alert, before hearing a painful scream. It was Hilda and they raced around house and up rear steps and burst through the back door.
She was on the kitchen floor, bleeding and looking at them helplessly. Neither could move. No! Please no; there hadn’t been enough time, Jurgen thought. Then the front door opened, banging against the wall, and Konrad took off.
“No Konrad, no,” Jurgen yelled as he dropped to her side. “Stay here! Konrad! Let them go!” he demanded but heard the boy race out of the house. Holding Hilda, he was worried. “Stay calm, everything is okay,” Jurgen comforted. “Stay calm, my dear, stay calm.” His hands were covered in blood. “Be still now; this isn’t so bad.”
“No, Jurgen, I think that it’s bad.”
“Don’t say that! Remember, I’m the doctor here.”
“But it is.” She closed her eyes and moaned. “It’s bad. Where’s Konrad?”
“He’s near.” Using towels from the kitchen Jurgen frantically worked to stop the bleeding before lifting her into his arms and hurrying towards to door. “Hang on, we’ll get you to the hospital.”
“Vladimir,” she moaned. “Oh, Vladimir, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry for what I’ve done.”
Jurgen watched her eyelids lower. “Come on now, stay with me,” he urged. “You can make it but you need to hang on and stay awake.”
“He’s here – he’s near.”
As they left the house a gun shot rang and Jurgen stopped. Dread overtook him and Hilda began to slip from his arms. No! No! “Konrad?” There was no answer. His heart was dead. Everything was being taken away. They were under attack and his wife’s words played: “You’ll never…you could never...” Damn her! Be strong man, he insisted and regained his grip and called, “Konrad!” and waited for a reply.
There was none and he continued to the car and placed Hilda in the passenger seat and scrambled to driver’s side. “Konrad,” he called again. “Konrad!” Jurgen screamed out the window and listened before starting the car.
“What is it?” she asked, her voice weak.
He put a hand on Hilda’s forehead and pushed her straight. “Sit up, okay – you have to stay awake, Hilda. Stay with me, okay?”
“I’m okay. Konrad? Where’s Konrad,” she asked.
“I don’t know.” He was frightened. “Try to apply some pressure.”
“No,” she said. “No, I’m okay.” Her hands checked the wounds. “I think I’m okay. You’ve stopped the bleeding. Just go and find the boy.”
“You don’t know that! No, you must get to the hospital.”
Mustering strength, “Jurgen! Konrad!” she pled. “Go check on him. Please find him.”
Feeling her body he inspected the dressing before looking deeply into her Hilda’s eyes. Her concentration was strong and she managed a persuasive nod. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, you’re a great doctor.” She smiled. “You know I’m not leaving without him, so go on now, go.”
“Okay, but stay here and don’t move,” he directed and shut the car door and walked low and careful back to the house. The dog was still barking. “Rudi,” he called in a whisper. “Come, Rudi, come.” He whistled.
After running around a corner the dog bound to his side and Konrad followed. “What happened? What’s going on?” Jurgen asked frantically, grabbing the boy by his shoulders and holding him. “I heard shots – what happened?”
“There was a guy and he had a gun,” Konrad reported. “Is Nurse Hilda dead? Did he kill her?”
“No, but she’s hurt bad,” Jurgen reported and looked around. “What happened? I heard shots – did he shoot at you? Where did he go?”
Konrad pointed towards a small barn behind the house and the darkness of still boots and pants was visible; a body lied face down on the black-looking grass. A tree was near and rose into the night, which was darker than the ground and Jurgen wondered if there was any light left. “What happened?” he asked.
“He didn’t shoot at me,” Konrad explained. “He just looked at me and then said something and then shot himself – shot himself right in the head.”
Suicide? If it wasn’t for Hilda he would have stopped his pain long ago, he thought. Between her and their shared investment in witnessing how it would all end; they’d come too far and seen too much not to know life was like a bad book; it shouldn’t be put down as reaching the end will make the effort worthwhile. But the war ended and life got better and being with her made living easy. He looked at the dead body and thought maybe if he only had a Hilda in his life this would not be happening, but remembered she had called a name; yes, sadly, the attacker did have a Hilda in his life.
“Should we go?”
“No,” Jurgen answered, his voice sad knowing what she would want. He rushed to the fallen man and checked his pulse.
“Is he dead?” asked Konrad, standing at Jurgen’s side.
Holding the lifeless wrist, the doctor nodded and turned over the body and studied the face. “Damn it! he’s just a boy!” Jurgen shouted. “Damn it! Damn this war…”
“What about Nurse Hilda?”
“Yes.” After shutting his eyes and nodding, Jurgen jumped to his feat and they sprinted to the car. He got in and looked at her. Even in darkness her paleness was alarming. Hilda was weak and blood leaked through bandages. “Hilda, stay with us!” Jurgen implored desperately, racing car down road.
From the back seat Konrad shook her shoulders. “Hilda, you have to stay awake!”
“Yes good, keep her awake!” Jurgen looked at Hilda and saw her eyes closing. “Keep shaking her. Don’t stop.”
“Nurse Hilda, stay awake,” Konrad demanded, pushing and pulling her body.
“I’m awake,” she responded. “I’m awake, my boy. I’m with you.” Her eyes opened. “Is he dead?”
The boy’s pain was inflicted by Hilda and he hurt her, and now was dead. Hands gripped wheel tight and foot pressed heavy on pedal. Tears blurred vision and he wiped eyes clean. It was bad and heart was breaking. Pain! He knew pain before but now understood agony; it engulfed chest and gut and burned. He wasn’t ready to lose her. What would he become? To see her fighting hurt bad and a blackness rose and there was damage. Time was not moving. He loved her. There was no one he knew better. She couldn’t be lost.
“Is he dead?” Hilda managed.
Her voice was weak and she was losing blood, but Hilda was battling. Jurgen did too and pressed on through a want to stop and hold her for one last embrace, feel her in his arms and give him a chance to say good bye. No! She couldn’t die! Not in a car. “Hilda,” Jurgen urged, pausing to gag on rising vomit. “Stop, don’t worry about him – stay with us. Okay?” He spit out the window. “Don’t worry about him, just focus on staying with us.”
“Oh, Vladimir,” she moaned. “Oh Vladimir…”
Tires traveling over road and air rushing through cracked windows provided sound. Konrad stared ahead and Jurgen’s hands were loose on the sterling wheel. There was no hurry to return home. The doctors did what they could but too much blood had been lost and she was gone and they were alone.
Home, he got down on his knees and began scrubbing blood off the kitchen floor, wondering if being dried made it easier to wash away. The trail to the door was clear. Were the bandages tight enough, he wondered. No, of course not, the bleeding hadn’t stopped! And she died. Shaking head he continued to clean. What kind of doctor was he, Jurgen asked. Had he been tending to babies too long to save a life? Outside, what could be seen of blood stained path leading to car was scrubbed. The rest would have to wait until daylight.
Slowly Jurgen started to where Vladimir shot himself and the dog bound to his side. Jurgen stopped and patted him on the head. “Good boy, Rudy. Good boy.” They continued to walk around the corner towards the back; the boy that killed Hilda had been taken away but in dim light coming from kitchen windows Jurgen saw his blood and got on knees and attempted to wipe it away.
In the house he sighed. It was late and eerie. A new quietness had overtaken the space and filled it with a hopelessness that certain sounds would never return. Her laugh, movements and voice were to never occupy again; not in five years; not in 10; they would never again. He made his way to the boy’s room and though fogged by loss, Jurgen was able to sooth him to sleep. Sitting on the bed he watched Konrad and thought of their lives and how tragedy brought and kept them together. The boy would be happier with his mom and dad, Jurgen was sure, as they would be with Hilda.
He went to the living room and sat in his reading chair. There was slightly more nightlight there. It came from the window as hints of color shone on the horizon. His instinct told him to drink, but why? To deaden pain? Take him to a place where he could pretend it wasn’t real? No, that would be temporary. It would be a disposal product. A glass of wine would make it better, for a moment, but would also lead to several more glasses and those wouldn’t bring her back, and pain would remain. Experience had taught him the war wasn’t going away and what they’d done wasn’t going to change. Their love was forbidden and then one night they were together, but she deemed it a mistake. Years of working closely together followed and as Germany’s loss became imminent, and events caused her see the Party differently and they were together again. This time she didn’t think it was mistake and when the war ended they became family. But she was taken away and he and the boy were alone. In time she came back and they were again family, but only briefly. Then the war came home, again, and this time Hilda wasn’t returning.
Facing windows that looked out onto front yard Jurgen let tears roll down his cheeks as he remembered the night’s events; the dog barking; the boy going into the yard with him; her scream; and the blood. Over and over he went through bandaging and pausing to see if her attacker was okay. Over and over he thought about the drive and if he could have gone faster. Again and again he thought of how it all could’ve been different. Maybe she doesn’t send that boy away. Maybe she doesn’t work with Sven on the 4th floor. Maybe Germany never begins the war, or at least doesn’t attempt to create a master race. No! Their decisions didn’t determine his outcome. His decisions did! Yes, he could have done more. He could have changed history. Or at the very least changed their history. But he didn’t and that realization pounded at being and made him sad. There were guns and knives; there was resistance and leadership; the opportunities were gone and now there was guilt and regret, his old friends and familiar foes. Instincts screamed for him to drink. Yes, drink. Pour booze into mouth and feel system absorb and mix with blood and carry it to extremities and back to heart. Yes! Booze! Drink! Feel it! Feel it! His mouth watered, profusely. How are you going to make it through the night? The next day? Life? Drink! Drink! But, though the tug was strong, Jurgen didn’t want the crutch. It would be easy to throw himself into it and run from what was unpleasant and painful but his heart sank further remembering Anette and her tiny digits and unexplained smiles and it made him feel good. What a sweet child. What a wasted life. Not dealing with her death was too easy; it was the coward’s path. Ha! Yes, his wife, she was right. He was no man. He was no leader. There were so many things that she was right about, Jurgen thought, but now Hilda’s death hurt and he didn’t want to let go of the power surging through his body, no matter how painful it felt. He was alive and everything was suddenly very real. Images and memories were clear; sounds and smells were distinctive and nothing was masked. No, he didn’t want to drink and chose instead to sit, reflect and feel. The sun slowly came alive and Jurgen eventually drifted to sleep, and dreamed:
Looking over a snow covered peak Tom stood tall and surveyed the slope. A gust kicked up loose powder and it swirled around his head. “Yes, this is perfect!” he declared, smiling. “This is what we came for.”
“But you can’t even see the bottom,” countered an unseen woman. “Are you sure we should do this?”
“Don’t worry, it’s there,” reassured Tom confidently. “There is always a bottom to a hill.” The sun was near and he covered eyes to shield its brightness. Happiness could not be contained and chest heaved and frozen air blew from mouth. Sledding down a hill through fresh snow after a long hike; what was better? What a joyous event this would be, and slowly he turned and looked down to where there was an eager young boy sitting on a toboggan. Tom glanced at the steep slope before returning to the child. “Are you ready for this?” he asked.
“Yes daddy,” replied his son. “Let’s go now!”
“Tom, are you sure about this,” the woman’s voice said again, putting a hand on his shoulder and appearing. It was Helga and she stood at his side. Rose-colored cheeks highlighted her milky skin and a blue scarf made eyes sparkle. The thick hair brushed Tom’s face as she put her arms around him. “Let’s not go too fast,” Helga requested softly. “I would like us to get down this without crashing, okay Tom?”
Looking into her eyes, “If you think that I’d ever let anything happen to you, you really don’t know what kind of man that I am,” he reassured, before kissing her.
Stepping away she looked at him and smiled. Moisture made her lips brilliant in the light. “Oh Tom, trust me, I know the kind of man that you are and I know that you think you are a man that thinks we can get down this hill as fast as you want without harm,” Helga said and laughed. “But I just want a smooth ride. I deserve that, don’t I?”
Tom smiled. “Yes you do. You do. And I will get you down this hill in one piece, I promise,” he reassured her and pulled her close and kissed her deeply. “I don’t want anything to ever happen to you.”
The boy watched them for a moment before asking, “Are we going to go down the hill?”
“Yes, we are,” Tom declared, lowering into the front of the sled. “Come on now, let’s do this!” he said, looking at Helga and smiling. “Come on now,” he repeated. “Let’s do this.”
She returned a surrendering smile and sigh and slowly got in behind the boy and grabbed onto Tom’s waist, securing the child between them.
“Ready?” Tom asked.
“Ready,” Helga replied. “Now keep your arms and legs in the sled,” she instructed the boy.
Tom’s heels dug into the snow and Helga closed her eyes as they began to move. When they were re-opened she scanned the countryside. The pine trees were tall and plentiful and there was beauty in the stillness. The air was fresh and felt good and she breathed it into her body. “Tom, be careful now,” Helga requested.
“Don’t worry, I will be.” He inched the sled towards the edge; his heels digging and pulling. “There’s nothing to worry about.” He gave another pull and the front began to teeter and the back rose and a moment later they were sliding, freely riding down the hill, their joyous cries heard until they disappeared from sight.