Belzec – Colin Thornton

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“And how is Mister Reder this morning?”

If Isaac Reder heard the question he didn’t let on.

“Let’s open these windows, get some light in here. Fresh air and sunlight, that’s the best medicine. Such a beautiful day. Wouldn’t you like to look at the lake? You’d feel so much better.”

“Sadie?”

“Suzie. You remember me. Suzie, your nurse.”

Suzie moves through the room with the smooth efficiency that comes from years of repetition. She throws the curtains aside, opens the window, pulls back the blanket, gently rolls the man on his side to check for bedsores, straightens his sheets, rolls him back and helps him into a fresh hospital gown, fluid levels in the IVs checked, urine pouch emptied, blood pressure taken, pulse and temperature – all duly recorded on the Patient Log.

Reder’s eyes follow her closely. Not with prurience, the way older men look at young nurses, nor affection or gratitude, but suspicion, wary of any hint of a threat.

She helps the old man sit up in bed, fluffs up his pillow and pulls the blanket up to his waist carefully tucking it in at his hips. Sitting beside him on the bed, she strokes the top of his hand, gentle and soothing like a cool cloth on a fevered brow. “You just relax,” she says. “We don’t want a day like yesterday now do we?”

Reder stares vacantly. Yesterday is long gone and while his memories have vanished, the bruises remain. Gently she pushes back his sleeve and draws her fingertips across the plum-colored blotches on his arms. “Poor dear.”

“Sadie, mein sweet libeh.”

His voice is weak and wheezy, his words barely audible. He’s so frail he could almost crumble to dust and blow away in the breeze from the open window.

“Here now,” she says, “let’s move Sadie closer so you two can be together.”

Suzie picks up an old photo in a plain frame and sits on the side of the bed next to Reder. Sadie is a young bride from another age. Two flower girls, not more than four- or five-years old, cling to the bride’s legs propping her up like bookends. They stand by her side in their finest white dresses, each clutching a small bouquet. Sadie appears stiff and self-conscious, her pose forced, dark eyes peering up at the camera waiting for the shutter to click.

Suzie imagines a nameless photographer using the patter of the profession: Look natural. Smile. Don’t move. Perfectly still now … FLASH! One more just like that. Hold it …

“So beautiful,” she says.

And how did Mister Reder look on his wedding day she wonders? Dressed in his finest suit, shoes shined, clean shirt and tie, a few dapper flourishes to mark a special day – a jeweled tie pin perhaps, a handkerchief in his breast pocket, a rose or carnation in his lapel, standing proudly before the photographer, ready to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, a conjugal journey into the unknown, the road ahead wide and long with no clouds on the horizon. Doesn’t every groom feel this way? She wonders what happened on that road, how it led to a fifteen by fifteen foot room at the BayView Clinic.

She places Sadie’s photo back on the side-table where Mister Reder can easily see her.

“Dear heart, mein libe hartz.”

Reder watches his nurse rise and walk to the end of the bed, following every move as though seeing it for the first or last time. He watches her read his chart, sees her brow furrow, her lips purse, her head shake slowly from side to side, walk a few steps to medicine trolley and back to his bedside. And while his eyes are on Suzie his mind is elsewhere. How wide the gap between here and there—a crack or a chasm—no one knows.

Suzie takes a blue pill from a paper cup, holds it between her thumb and index finger and opens her mouth wide like a mother might do to encourage a baby to eat one more spoonful of dinner. Reder does likewise. She places the pill on his tongue, raises a glass of water to his mouth and tilts it back until he swallows. “One more,” she says, and gives him a second pill.

While she waits for the pill to take effect she studies his face eyes the color of ripe chestnuts floating in yellow tinted whites; skin as thin and wrinkled as crepe, a faint tracing of blue veins beneath the translucence; white whiskers backlit by the morning light; a small scar through his eyebrow to the bridge of his nose…

Paging Doctor Winnock, Doctor Winnock to Admissions. Doctor Winnock to Admissions.

The P.A. announcement pulls Suzie back to the moment. Her shift has just started. There are many more patients to care for and no time to dawdle. “I’ll be back in a little while. You behave now,” she says on her way out.

Alone now, Isaac Reder looks out the window at the lake. The sun is still low over the horizon. Reflections dance on the surface of the water. Tiny sparkles of sunlight blossom into iridescent pools as the double dose of Adavan seeps into his brain lulling him into a drug-addled dream.

MacLeod. Paging Doctor MacLeod. Room two fourteen. Code Red Room fourteen. Fourteen. Room fourteenfourteenfourteen…

Even as the hospital announcement echoes through the halls the words carom through Isaac Reder’s mind and take him to another time on the other side of the world.

…twofourteentwofourteen. Fourteen. Prisoners in fourteen line up! Fourteen.

Dogs snarl and snap at ragged prisoners as they scurry through the snowy sludge. Sirens wail in the distance, angry voices and percussive gunfire. Searchlights sweep across the yard, light and shadow roll across the buildings, ground and people like a macabre circus freak show. A guard barks, “Barrack Fourteen. Line up!”

One skeletal creature, shapeless in oversized rags, falls to his knees in a coughing fit. He is shot and left to die in the mud. The remaining prisoners step around and over the body without pause or a second glance.

“Not you Reder!”

Reder freezes as the guard separates him from the group.

“No shower for you tonight, Jewboy. You’re on wheelbarrow duty.“

Reder drops his head and speaks to the ground. “Bitte, mein hehr, my wife. Any news of my wife?”

“Maybe you’ll see her in the pits tonight,” says one, laughing at his own wit. Other guards join in. Even the snarling dogs seem to be enjoying the show. But enough! There’s work to be done. “Wheelbarrow!”

“Yessir, mein hehr. Wheelbarrow.”

He wraps his boney hands around the barrow handles and pushes it through the sodden ground across the yard. His feet squish and suck through the mud as the metal wheel of the barrow squeaks round and round and round.

Nausea hits him first. It’s not just the stench that makes him want to puke but the sheer magnitude of the horrific spectacle. The entire yard is a sprawling heap of naked dead bodies. Faces in the mud, feet pointing to the sky. A tangle of bones tossed aside like dead tree branches waiting for the torch. He wonders if dying would be better than living in this world. Maybe he’s dead already and doesn’t know.

Reder bends down to lift a body into the wheelbarrow, so weak now he can barely lift even the scrawniest of them without a grunt.

“I know you,” he says to a lifeless face. “You were in my barrack.”

He rolls his load over the pile, through a tunnel, up a ramp, to the pit, dumps the body on top of the hundreds already at the bottom and returns to the pile for another load. Over and over, all night long. Familiar faces: a dentist from Vilnius, his old university professor, a clarinet player, Rabbi Glaubach, a young boy from his village.

“Just a boy,” he says. “So young. Too young.”

Gunfire shatters his reverie. “Move it Jew! This is Belzec, not a vacation camp.”

Ich bin mit di kinder foon Satan,” he mutters under his breath.

“Don’t jabber at me Jewboy!”

Soldiers circle Reder like wild dogs about to pounce on a kitten. “Jewboy Reder.” Together they chant a grotesque schoolyard rhyme: “Jewboy Reder. Jewboy Reder. Jewboy Reder …”

He covers his ears with his hands but there’s no relief. Swinging his head from side to side, his hands pound his ears trying to silence the horror.

“Jewboy Reder. Jewboy Reder. Jewboy Reder”…”Mister Reder?  Mister Reder. Wake up. Mister Reder?”

Reder emerges from his nightmare thrashing and wailing. Suzie tries to calm him, to keep him from hurting himself but he’s full of rage, punching, scratching, slapping, fighting her with every fiber of strength he has left. The beeping alarm from the monitor recording his vital signs adds to the chaos.

The commotion has attracted the attention of an orderly on the ward. Suzie calls out, “Page Doctor Winnock—NOW!”

“Shlaym! Nazi hint,” Reder screams. “Nazi dogs. Shlaym!”

Paging Doctor Winnock. Code Red Room Three Twelve. Doctor Winnock Code Red Three Twelve.

Reder is still raging when Doctor Winnock arrives. As soon as they can hold him still, he gives Reder a shot of sedative. Pressing Reder’s shoulders to the bed Winnock notices a dribble of blood on Suzie’s chin.

“You’re bleeding,” he says.

“He didn’t mean to,” she replies. “He’s really a sweet old man. It’s just these dreams, these nightmares, these, I don’t know what they are … delusions.”

Within seconds Reder’s fists begin to unclench, his feet to lay still.

“Yes sir. Right away mein hehr. Please don’t hurt me. Nit shatten mir.”

Gradually the monitor alarm returns to a steady beep as Reder’s vital signs return to normal. Winnock and Suzie catch their breaths while they watch their patient go limp. He hands her a box of Kleenex to daub her cut lip.

“Where do they go?” Suzie asks, “When they leave us out here and disappear into their own world, where are they? After all the years and all the patients and all the times I’ve asked that question I still don’t know the answer.”

Winnock has pondered the same question. “Wherever he goes, it’s more real to him than the world out here.”

After a short silence he asks her, “What can you tell me about Mister, um? …”

“Reder.”

“Mister Reder?”

“He’s further gone every day, Doctor, slipping deeper into dementia. He hyperventilates, he thrashes, doesn’t sleep, his moods swing from catatonic grief to violent rages. Today it’s his wife. Monday it was maggots in the food. Yesterday he was choking on smoke, screaming at us to close the windows. I thought he was going to have a stroke his blood pressure was so high. He hurts himself.”

Suzie unbuttons Reder’s pajama top. “Look at these bruises.”

Reder protests, “Lozt mir alayn.” His voice thin and slurry now, but the fire within still burns. “My wife, Mein veib, Sadie.”

Doctor Winnock examines the bruises on Reder’s chest and ribs, pressing them softly with his thumb and watches the blood return. He rolls up the patient’s sleeve, gently rubbing a bluish smear on his left forearm. “That’s not a bruise,” he says. “That’s an old tattoo. He’s a Survivor.”

An unknown chapter of Reder’s life has been revealed and with it a new level of respect and understanding.

“What did Doctor MacLeod say?”

“Up his Adavan, strap him down, keep him from hurting himself, wait for the inevitable. And, he recommended you.”

“Me?”

“Said you spoke Jewish.”

“He is speaking Yiddish, but I don’t recognize his accent. Polish maybe, Lithuanian?”

“So who’s Belzec?” Suzie asks. “He’s always mentioning Belzec. I can’t find any reference in his fi–”

“–Belzec? Are you sure he said ‘Belzec’?”

For reasons she cannot explain the sound of the word gives her a chill as though some force between the letters conveyed a layer of meaning far beyond a mere dictionary definition.

“Lord have mercy,” Winnock says.

“What?”

“Belzec isn’t a person. It’s a place.”

“What kind of place?”

“Belzec was a German Death Camp in World War Two. My grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. He had a tattoo on his arm just like Mister Reder. I’ll never forget it: Number two-zero-two, nine-forty-seven; efficient bastards. As horrible as Auschwitz was, he told me Belzec was worse. The worst.”

Instinctively Suzie places her palm on Reder’s grizzled cheek. “You poor dear.”

Reder responds to her touch. “Tayereh Sadie, my sweet Sadie.”

“Sadie?” Winnock asks.

“His wife. Died forty years ago – suicide.” Suzie hands Winnock the photo from the bedside table.

“Kids?”

“None”

“Visitors?”

“None.”

“Goddammit!” he says, clenching his fist. “Living through Belzec once was horror enough, now he’s in there again.”

Tears well up in Suzie’s eyes as she realizes exactly what the Doctor is saying.

“Well, we have to do something. We can’t let him suffer like this. It’s cruel. It’s inhuman. Give him a drug. Try to stop this torture.”

Winnock grabs hold of her arms locking his eyes on hers. “Suzie. How long have we worked together? You know me. I’m not insensitive. I know he’s suffering, but what would you have me do?”

Doctor MacLeod to the Pharmacy. Doctor MacLeod to the Pharmacy.

The P.A. announcement reminds him that they are in a public clinic, that sound travels around corners and people can overhear private discussions. People can misunderstand.

Nodding towards the door he says, “Close that.”

Feeling guilty without knowing why, she looks up and down the hall before closing the door. Suzie hasn’t quite grasped the delicacy of their position, her emotions are still right on the surface, her voice too loud. “For God’s sake, he’s ninety-three years old–”

“–Shhh! Keep your voice down.”

Leaning closer she whispers, “No one will miss him…”

Winnock pauses and gives Suzie a surprised look, as if he is about to rebuke her. Instead he starts, “It’s illegal, Suzie. Someone will find out. And what would we say, ‘No one would miss him’?”

“What do you think Mister Reder would want?”

“We’re the ones who will have to live with this.”

“We have to do something.”

Winnock stands by the window, takes off his glasses and rubs his brow with the back of his hand. Looking across the lake stretching uninterrupted to the horizon calms him, helps him to organize his thoughts.

“You have Holdol on the medicine cart?” he asks.

She nods yes.

“We could ‘plateau’ Mister Reder. Take him right to the edge, put him in a coma and let his body shut itself down. It will be fast and painless.”

“We have to help him,” she says. “He’s suffering. I wouldn’t let my pet go through this agony.”

Reder is finally asleep, breathing easily, his nightmare over for the moment. Lying there, head nestled in his pillow, relaxed and snoring gently, anyone would think he was a man at peace.

“Get the Holdol,” he says. “Never mind. I’ll get it. You wake him up.”

Doctor Winnock examines the labels on the medicine trolley while Suzie sits down on the bed beside Reder placing her hand on his shoulder.

“Mister Reder. Mister Reder. Time to wake up.”

His eyelids open, dark crescents under each red-rimmed eye. Looking into his chocolate brown eyes an image of a pet Poodle she had as a child flashes through her mind and she struggles to keep from crying.

“We go Deborah’s now, yes?” he asks.

“Yes.”

“Best latkes in Vilnius make Deborah. Sadie’s sister Deborah. Before war was.”

Doctor Winnock hands Suzie a paper cup with four pink pills in it. They look so harmless, like candy.

“First you have to take these Mister Reder.”

Doctor Winnock pours a glass of water and hands it to Suzie. She places the pills on Reder’s tongue and raises the glass to his mouth tipping it back slowly waiting for him to swallow.

“Is Sadie come?”

Suzie picks Sadie’s photo up off the bedside table and rests it on Mister Reder’s hip. “Here.” she says, gently placing his hand on the corner of the frame. “Sadie’s right here. Hold on to her. She loves you very much.”

Reder’s rheumy eyes eventually find Sadie in the photo and as though he had stepped out of a dense fog into a glorious sunbeam his face is transformed. His tension loosens, the creases in his brow unfold, his eyes sparkle, a faint smile passes over his lips. A long-forgotten memory floats to the surface. “My bunny,” he murmurs.

“And she’s been waiting for you, too. Remember how happy you were? You’ll be with her soon. Together again.”

Tsuzamen veeder. Together again.”

While Suzie watches her patient Winnock watches the bedside monitor and listens to the slow, steady beeping as the numbers fall.

Reder’s eyes flutter closed, his breath barely audible, hands limp across Sadie’s photo laying face down on his chest.

Suzie and Winnock stand there, realizing they have traded his dreams for their own, not knowing if they will haunt them when they are old and alone like Mr. Reder.

After retiring from the Canadian advertising industry, Colin began writing for himself instead of clients (less money, more fun). In addition to short stories, he writes and produces an ongoing series of audio dramas called “Small Words” for Misfits Audio in Cleveland.

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