Glancing at his brother’s feet, he saw the soft leather of the toe separating from the seam of the shoe, his bare heel was exposed in back where the leather had worn away completely. “We’ll have to find you a new pair,” Harry whispered.
Joseph only nodded, his gaze not wavering from the shaved head of the person in line before him. The winter was getting to Joseph. It was creeping into him slowly, turning his skin almost translucent so the veins of his hands and arms stood out. He barely talked anymore. He performed his work mechanically, and not with the determined rage that had at first characterized his motions. Being the youngest of his brothers, he had been the one to return to their bunk each evening with cement caked on his hands and conviction in his voice. “It’s almost over!” He’d insist. “We’ll be free soon.”
“How can you say that?” David had asked. “What do you know that we don’t?”
“How much longer can they possibly need us to build those walls? Mix the cement? Soon, they’ll run out of excuses to hold us here. Their only other choice will be to let us go. They’ll have to set us free.”
He’d said that word repeatedly, Free, as though they were caged animals. He wasn’t willing to see the other option, Death, even though it stared them in the face every day. It had taken Joseph the longest to let go of the idea of home. For both Harry and David, having their wives and children torn from them and sent to Auschwitz was enough to make them face the bitter reality of their lives. Reliving memories of their past only made the present more unbearable. Joseph, however, had held on . . . to the idea that they’d survive. And to the memory of Anna.
When they’d first arrived at the labor camp, Joseph had woken nightly calling out Anna’s name. He’d fall out of bed and walk to the door, seemingly unaware of where he was. There was a look of desperation as he pulled on the door of the barracks, growing frustrated when it didn’t yield. The moonlight filtering through the barred windows made his face discernible to the others. Harry or David would drag him back. “You don’t want to get shot!” They’d whisper, afraid to wake the others, knowing that some other prisoner would report back to the Kapo.
“But she’s out there,” Joseph would argue, his adolescent voice breaking in his fervor. Harry and David would try to quiet him, to get him to lie back down, to ignore the tears they saw in their younger brother’s eyes. “She needs me,” he’d whisper, and neither Harry nor David had the heart to tell him that she was probably dead now, like so many others.
“I’ll look around today,” Harry whispered again watching his brother’s feet free themselves as they marched to a standstill outside the barracks where food was administered. “We’ll find you another pair of shoes.”
David was listening to this exchange intently. When Joseph didn’t respond, he glanced at Harry. After they were given their bowls of water and potatoes, Joseph moved to a corner of the lot where he could sit by himself. He turned his back on everyone and hunched next to one of the barren trees. Harry watched to make sure that he ate before turning to David.
“What’s the matter with him?” Harry asked, his voice heavy with concern. “He’s been that way for so long now.”
“Can you remember when it started?” David asked in a low voice. “When did you first notice a change in his behavior?”
David’s education showed. Rather than discuss the issue as a brother, he was reverting into the doctor he had once trained to be.
“I don’t know. It’s been over a week. Maybe two?”
“What happened two weeks ago? Did you notice anything that might have affected him? Or could he have finally woken up one morning and realized that this is reality, that the Kommandant would rather see us dead than sent home?”
“Shhh,” Harry hissed, and he pointed to the far end of the lot where the Kommandant stood talking with a female guard. Both Harry and David eyed the tall man who stood at over six feet. He wore a long, leather overcoat with medals pinned to the lapels and fastened by gold buttons. His black boots rode up his legs to his knees. He wore his cap tilted at an angle on his blond head. The contours of his face were sharp and scarred from a case of acne he must have suffered in his childhood, but he had a look that seemed to appeal to the Nazi woman. She laughed as she talked, her hands moving in animated gestures. The Kommandant threw back his head and laughed at something she said. He reached out and grabbed her gloved hand, opening her fingers to expose her leather-clad palm. Carefully, he brought her hand to his mouth and kissed it. But not without brushing it free of dirt and ash first.
She was dressed just as severely as the Kommandant in a tight black leather waistcoat that fell to her ankles. She seemed oblivious to the cold as she laughed at the Kommandant’s flirtations. Returning his affections, she pulled the glove from her hand to finger the red wool scarf that hung around the Kommandant’s neck.
Harry and David watched all of this in astonishment. It never failed to amaze Harry how these people could carry on in a normal way when they were surrounded by so much death.
“That’s new,” Harry whispered of the scarf as the Kommandant took it from his neck and wrapped it around the woman’s. “That’s a sure sign it’s winter.”
David nodded. They watched, standing and shivering, as the Kommandant pulled the woman closer and draped the scarf over the woman’s shoulders to warm her. Turning away in disgust, Harry and David heard a strangled cry from the corner of the yard where Joseph was sitting by himself. Harry knew immediately the sound had come from his brother. Without exchanging a word, they hurried over to his side.
He was standing and clutching the tree. His hands were pawing at the bark so forcefully they left smears of blood on the surface of the tree. Harry grabbed his brother’s hands and brought them to his side. David stood before him and gazed into his eyes. “What is it, Joe?” He asked in desperation. He had never seen his brother’s face look so pale and distraught. The green of his eyes had turned a muddy color, and they appeared hollow. His cheeks were sunken and tinged with a yellow pallor. He looked like a skeleton, not a sixteen-year-old boy. Both Harry and David glanced at the full bowl of watery soup sitting on the ground. He had hardly touched his meal, if you could call the slop in the bowl a meal. He was looking past David frantically.
“Let me go!” Joseph hissed in a voice that was not his own. “It’s her! Let me go!”
“It’s who?” David asked.
“They’re coming.” Harry whispered, more to David than Joseph, who he still held in his arms.
Behind them, the Kommandant and the female soldier were approaching. The whole yard had heard Joseph’s cry. The prisoners had frozen with their bowls in their hands and turned to stare at the small gathering. They quickly turned away.
“What’s going on here?” The Kommandant asked as he approached, moving the flap of his coat aside so the three prisoners could see the gun in its holster.
“Nothing, Kommandant,” Harry said quickly.
“I heard a scream. Did my ears deceive me?” His words were brisk and harsh. He looked at Joseph, who had grown still and whose eyes were glued on the female guard. The Kommandant followed his gaze. “Do you know this . . . person?” The Kommandant asked the woman.
“Not at all, Peter.” She said with a small laugh that barely concealed her scorn. Harry felt something in him stir at the sound of her voice, a female’s voice. How long had it been since he had been this close to a woman? How much time had passed since he’d seen his Rachel? How long since he’d seen his son? Quickly, Harry put these thought from his mind.
“Anna,” Joseph whispered. Because Harry was holding onto him, he was the only one to hear Joseph whisper the name of his lost love, the girl he had sworn to marry before they were forever separated, and his skin began to crawl.
“What did you say?” The Kommandant asked sharply, nudging Joseph with his rifle.
“Anna, is it you?” Joseph replied in a whisper. What followed next happened so quickly that neither Harry nor David had time to react. Joseph broke out of Harry’s hold and stumbled toward the female guard. She stared at him in horror yet did not move. When he was standing face to face with her, he lifted his hand and almost placed it on her cheek. “Anna! It is you. You’ve come back to me!” Joseph collapsed on the ground at her feet.
“He’s sick!” She nearly shrieked, kicking dirt with her boot onto his pale, thin, unmoving arm. Harry and David sank down beside him, gathering him close.
“Get him up!” The Kommandant demanded.
“He won’t be able to stand.” Harry insisted, trying to hold Joseph up. He slouched between his brothers.
“Get him up! Up!” The Kommandant shouted. The other prisoners had fallen back toward the building where they received their meal.
The Kommandant raised his rifle, but instead of aiming it at Joseph, he put it to Harry’s chin. “That is a mistake you shouldn’t have allowed.” The Kommandant pulled slowly on the trigger of the gun, just enough to make Harry close his eyes, beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead. Then, the man laughed harshly and withdrew the gun, intentionally cutting Harry’s chin so a bright line of blood began to trickle onto the collar of his soiled shirt. “You are lucky I’m feeling kind.” Turning to his companion, he put his arm around her and started whispering, “Shhh, now, mein liebchen. You’re alright. Hush, now.”
Harry opened his eyes and turned to stare at David. He was shaking so hard he could barely support the weight of his brother. “I’ve got him,” David said, lifting Joseph and throwing him over his shoulder. They heard a moan escape Joseph’s lips, and Harry saw a thin line of yellow vomit fall from Joseph’s mouth onto David’s back.
“Oh, God, don’t let it be typhus.” Harry whispered in a voice that was barely audible. David had grown pale. “If he dies, David, what will we do?”
“Don’t say that!” David insisted. “We don’t have much time before we have to report for work. Let’s get him to the infirmary. Now!”
Harry’s cheek twitched involuntarily as they passed the patients lying on their cots. The infirmary did not really serve as a hospital. Instead, there were rows and rows of beds upon which men lay awaiting their death, their bodies nothing but bones wrapped in a thin casement of skin, dying from typhus or dysentery or tuberculosis or malnutrition. He could not stand the stench of urine on the soiled sheets; it bothered him more than the dull smell of feces which daily permeated the air they breathed. Here, the scent was strong, concentrated. The sheets were never changed.
During the summer, the cement floor had been infested with insects that were attracted to the decaying bodies. Now, a thin layer of ice had formed on the cement from the cold. The walls had no insulation. The windows lacked glass. The only protection they offered from the outside were sheets of plastic which flapped against the bars incessantly, ushering in the unwanted winter chill. The only light in the room came from a few spare bulbs, which hung from the ceiling on frayed cords, cobwebs interwoven between them.
David seemed immune to the smells that assaulted them in the infirmary. His medical training was evident as he approached Joseph, took his thin hand, and massaged it to get the circulation going. He’d study Joseph’s bloodshot eyes that were almost always closed, lost in delusional dreams. When they were open, they had the dull look to them that both Harry and David recognized. It was a look of defeat, a look welcoming death.
“He’s not eating.” David told Harry after they left their younger brother one night. “He can’t stomach anything but the bread. The water in the soup hasn’t been boiled for sterilization. Who knows where they get the water from in the first place? It goes right through him. The potatoes are too heavy for him to digest at the moment. His immune system has deteriorated to such a degree that he can’t fight off any sort of infection.” David spoke as though he were reading from a patient’s chart. His voice was flat, controlled, matter-of-fact. Unemotional. He would have made a great doctor, Harry thought sadly.
“Is he going to live?” Harry asked, though he was afraid to hear the answer. Every day when he sat by Joseph’s bedside, holding his unresponsive hand, he felt his hope drain. If he lost Joseph too, after everything else he’d lost, everyone else he’d lost, he doubted whether or not he’d have the fight to keep on living, even for David.
“The most important thing now is for him to eat. He must gain more weight, fight the malnutrition, mend his immune system.”
“How is he going to do that?” Harry asked gravely. They were walking across the camp grounds at an hour when few dared to fight the cold. Harry shook from both the chill and his own desperation. He grabbed his brother’s arm. “We only get one ration of bread a day. Even if we gave him ours, it wouldn’t be enough to save him!”
“I know,” David said, his eyes on the ground. “We’ll have to do more than that,” he whispered. The sweep of the spotlight had fallen on them, . . . had now trained on them. David looked up and began to walk again at a brisk pace, his brother following suit. They did not want to look suspicious. When the spotlight moved on to sweep the rest of the camp grounds, Harry pulled David into the shadows where they would not be seen. “What do you mean, we’ll have to do more than that?” He demanded.
“Listen to me.” David said. “No matter what it costs, we have to give him our share and steal some more. Don’t protest,” he said when Harry opened his mouth. “This is what we have to do. I’ll take care of it in the morning.” With that, he stepped back into the light and headed for the barracks.
They stood in the food line. David was handed his bowl of soup and told to move on. Both brothers had their eyes on the Kommandant. He was standing by the door, casually glancing at the inmates as they took their meals outside, talking with the Kapo about some issue that had the small man under his command incensed. The Kapo thoughtlessly spit at the Kommandant’s feet and received a hard slap for his insolence. David quickly eyed Harry to let him know the time was right. As David stepped up to the bread basket, Harry saw the Kommandant shake his head, wipe sweat from his brow, and turn to look directly at the food line.
Before Harry knew what to do, he began to cough. He coughed long and hard. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw the Kommandant spin on his heel and gaze at him coldly. David didn’t even turn to look at his brother, who was bent over with self-inflicted spasms. He quickly shoved an extra piece of bread into his pant leg and moved on, his heart racing. As Harry stood up, he took a deep breath and turned to receive his soup. He prayed that the Kommandant would believe his sudden coughing fit, but more importantly, he prayed that he had successfully averted the Kommandant’s attention away from David. Sweat poured down the sides of his face as he moved on to take his own piece of bread. David had started toward the door. Harry turned to follow in his brother’s footsteps. The Kommandant did not pay any attention to David. He escaped into the lot beyond with the tail of a piece of bread jutting from his pants. However, when Harry reached the door, the Kommandant put a large, firm hand on his shoulder to stop him.
“I’m watching you.” The man whispered, leaning close to Harry’s ear. Harry didn’t move. His eyes stared straight ahead, his breath caught in his throat. He felt a tight pull on his shoulder as the man squeezed, then pushed him out the door.
That evening, Harry and David stood over Joseph, slowly feeding him tiny bites of bread.
The men in Harry and David’s block were called to attention. They didn’t have time to exchange words as they were rushed into the cold outside. It was past seven o’clock, and darkness had fallen. They instantly, mechanically, formed rows. Harry stood in the row in front of David’s, two heads over. He glanced behind him for one brief instant, but it was enough time to hold his brother’s eyes and communicate silently. They were scared to death.
The Kommandant stepped before them. SS surrounded them on all sides. Their guns were trained at the rows of men that stood in perfect silence, trying hard not to shiver.
“Today, a crime was committed.” The Kommandant said in a loud voice, his words made substantial by the white puffs of cold air that escaped from his lips. “The crime occurred this morning, during your meal hour.”
Harry felt his blood run cold. Now he didn’t dare turn around and look at David.
“There is a certain number of bread slices put out each morning and each evening. We count the number before and after each mealtime. After each morning’s head count, we know how many pieces of bread should remain at the end of the meal. This morning, the head count for your barrack was twenty-one. Twenty-two slices of bread were taken. How do you account for that?”
This question was answered by silence. None of the prisoners could move.
“The only possible answer, of course, is that one of you stole a piece of bread.”
The Kommandant stopped and consulted a sheet of paper that was handed to him by one of the SS soldiers. He lifted his head, turned back to his prisoners, and in a loud voice that projected across the whole camp, he called the numbers, “39812! 23958!”
Harry closed his eyes as his body began to shake involuntarily. His number had not been called.
But David’s had. He stepped forward, accompanied by a deathly thin, pale, and terrified man who looked around helplessly, shaking his head in disbelief. When both men were standing before the Kommandant, the officer turned to address the rest of the prisoners.
“These two men are suspected of the crime. We cannot prove which one stole the bread. There is, however, one man amongst you who knows the guilty individual. 39813!”
Harry began to walk. He didn’t think, he only responded to the number that had replaced his name. He didn’t look at the men around him. He didn’t look at his brother. He only looked forward, and eventually the Kommandant fell into his line of vision. For a brief instant, he saw the challenge in the other man’s eyes. He saw the momentary smile that twisted the man’s lips, so small and fleeting that no one else could possibly have noticed. It was meant only for Harry.
Although the wind still washed over Harry’s bald head and thin body, he was not aware of the cold. On the periphery of his vision, Harry saw the naked trees lashing back and forth, but there was no sound of branches breaking. He knew the men were behind him, but he did not feel their presence. In that suspended moment, he lifted his head in defiance and met the Kommandant’s eyes.
“Face these men.” The Kommandant ordered. Harry stepped before David and the other man.
“It has come to my attention that you know which of these men took that stolen piece of bread,” the Kommandant said in a tone of voice that seemed only to address Harry. He leaned close to Harry’s ear, as he had done earlier that morning, and whispered menacingly, “I will know whether you tell the truth or not. I will kill you if you lie.” With these words, the German pulled his gun out and aimed it at Harry. Harry turned and stared at his brother. All expression had fled from David’s face. His eyes were vacant, refusing to meet his brother’s pleading gaze.
Then, Harry looked at the innocent man. His face was all too alive with expression. Tears stood out in his eyes, an undignified look, and he started to shake his head and whispered, “Bitte, bitte, nein, nein.”
At that moment, Harry knew what he had to do. “He did it. He’s the man.”
The Kommandant looked long and hard at Harry. He pulled back on the trigger. Harry closed his eyes. He felt a hand close on his shoulder and shake him hard. “You will watch,” the Kommandant whispered as Harry’s eyes opened. Just then, the Kommandant turned, aimed, and fired the gun.
The frail man seemed to crumple to the ground, his bones made of ash. David stood looking down at him. Harry stood looking down at him. There was silence. To the other prisoners, this was nothing new. They had grown used to such public displays of punishment. For Harry, however, his life had changed forever. He had killed a stranger to save his brother. The vision of the man’s face as his life escaped him would forever be etched in Harry’s mind.
Melissa Hunter is a freelance writer/editor who has worked in the field of non-profit, education, and PR for over 15 years. She is currently working on a novel that tells her grandmother’s story of survival in Poland during WW2.
This is beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.
My current husband’s parents are both survivors. His Father’s family escaped to Shanghai in 1939 and his mother remained in Berlin until 1952 and was labeled a “half-breed” (her mother was a convert and still had Christian baptismal papers which saved them). Both his Father and Mother traveled and met in St. Louis in 1952 where they still live today.
I also converted in 2014 (had wanted to convert from the age of 12 after watching the Eichmann trials) so these particular stories are very moving for me. One of the things that made this story so poignant for me is that when Marvin’s Father was asked what he wanted for his 10th birthday (while living in Shanghai) he answered “a whole loaf of bread just for me” because he was starving … and he got it.
I’m so glad that you’ve returned to writing — you’re so good at it. You seem to be in a good place.