A story of love and loss in the final days of World War II
Josef awoke, and soon realized that it was early and that today he was on duty. Already bright sunlight was streaming in through his window. He loved this time of day; so fresh, so full of opportunity and promise. As he lay there he caught the faint smell of lavender coming from somewhere.
“Was it aftershave?” he wondered. Perhaps one of the officers from a nearby room had received a gift from a sweetheart of from his family. It was possible, although such a gift would be very difficult to come by these days.
Ah lavender! His mind wandered back to his mother’s garden. Fragrant and welcoming, it had always been an oasis of calm. He remembered his mother’s outdoor dinner parties in summer and the delicious laughter of the girls, their neighbor’s daughters as they frolicked with him through the summer blooms. Oh, how they played hide-and-seek amongst the trees - the oaks, the olive, the birch and the laurel. He smiled as he thought of the laurel, for it was behind that noble, sweetly scented tree that he had tasted his first kiss and tentatively found the objects comprising that central and unfathomable mystery of the universe – woman.
Had it all been a dream? Those far off, half forgotten days of his youth and those carefree nights, perhaps so. He remembered winter evenings by the fire, his little brother reading Goethe to his mother. He struggled to recall his brother’s favorite lines and after some effort they came bouncing back to him, just as he had once bounced his happy little brother on his knee.
Peace, in twilight’s whispered sighs, cradles human cares away, and upon these weary eyes closes soft the gates of day. Deep the falling of the night, star holds sacred rank with star, lordly beams and twinklings bright glitter near and shine afar, glitter mirrored in the lake, gleam in cloudless night on high. Bringing stillness in her wake, Moon in splendour rules the sky. Now the heavy hours have vanished, joys and pains are passed away. Breathe new faith, your ills are banished; trust the newborn break of day.
Yes, prophetic words those. The new faith had indeed banished all ills and the whole of the fatherland was at last awakened. Just then the next few lines came back to him and he spoke them out aloud, “ Green the vales and hills, displaying wealth of shade in peaceful morn, seed now seen in silvery swaying gives the promise of the corn.” And he yearned for peace, but when have revolutions ever been peaceful? It just does not happen. Expelling these thoughts from his mind, he threw back the blankets and sprang out of bed. The rug beneath his feet had miraculously become a stage. The walls melted away to be replaced by row upon row of spectators. With a hand outstretched, he addressed his rapt audience, “Yet, what’s this? ‘T was surely here, in a bygone anxious year, tongue-tied and in troubled state, I as undergraduate sat and trusted graybeards’ art, and took their gabble so to heart. From the crusted books in college lies they told and called it knowledge, self-mistrusting doubt was rife!” Shaking his fist at the audience, he added, “Robbing them and me of life!” The audience went wild with applause. They loved him, they adored him, girls spurned the attentions of their lovers to applaud him, mothers glowed with admiration and wished that he were their son and even the stern old burghers swelled their chests with pride that they had witnessed such a sublime performance. Sated with the approbation of his public, he sank backwards onto the bed laughing. Incongruously the alarm clock rang just then and he gave it a disapproving glance. The applause had hardly died away and this ridiculous machine decides to make its absurd noise while moving sideways like some monstrous wind-up crustacean.
He picked the clock up and turned the alarm off. It was eight a.m. He looked up at the train timetable on the wall. He had two hours before the train was due to arrive. All thoughts of Goethe and the theatre receded, vanishing back into the past along with his mother’s garden.
Strange, he mused, how often a single word, a sound or an aroma can initiate in the mind an entire sequence of memories, thoughts and reminiscences. Plato believed that the mind contained deep within it, shrouded wisdom that the soul had gathered in previous existences and at certain random instances, fragments of this knowledge would come to the surface. Perhaps he had lived before; perhaps he had been an artist or an actor. It was an intriguing idea.
With this thought growing more and more fanciful, Josef opened his wardrobe. There hung a pristine gray uniform. He reached for it then stopped. Upon the collar, right next to his rank patch, was a hair. He carefully lifted it off and examined it closely. It was thirty or so centimeters long and gloriously blonde, no split at the tip and of a hue so golden that it seemed to catch the sunlight as he moved closer to the window.
Yes, he thought, a truly Nordic hair. But from which fair head had it come?
He tried to think but could come up with no likely candidate. He would simply have to have a word with the staff. He had set the hair down upon his bedside table and proceeded to pull his pants and boots on when there came a timid knock at the door.
The door opened slowly and he saw standing there an orderly with eyes downcast, carrying a steaming kettle.
“Good morning Herr Doctor.” Said the man quietly, clicking his heels. Josef had seen this man once before and now struggled to recall his name.
The man winced and with his eyes still firmly planted on the floor gently answered,
“Kassel, Herr Doctor.”
Josef looked down to see what the man might be looking at. Seeing nothing he said,
“Do forgive me my dear fellow. You’re new here are you not?”
“Yes, Herr Doctor. We’ve been here a little over a week.”
“Ah, very good.”
Josef then reached for his silver shaving mug and positioned it within Kassel’s line of sight. Kassel proceeded to fill it, pouring more and more water in until the mug was in danger of overflowing.
“Stop, stop, that’s plenty.” Joseph said, beginning to relish the man’s nervousness.
“I’m sorry sir… Herr Doctor. May I get you anything else sir?”
“No thank you Kassel. You might let me know when breakfast is served though.”
Kassel rapidly checked his wrist- watch.
“Er…I believe we have been ready for fifteen minutes sir.”
“Splendid. That will be all.”
Kassel again clicked his heels and was about to make a hasty departure when Josef said,
“Oh Kassel, one moment.”
“Yes Herr Doctor.”
“I wonder if you might be able to tell me who pressed my uniform yesterday afternoon?”
“I believe it was Sophia…er, frauline Kassel, my daughter Herr Doctor.”
“Has you daughter got shoulder length blonde hair?”
The despondent look in the man’s eyes as he looked up made Josef smile inwardly again.
“Is there any thing wrong with the uniform Herr Doctor? For if there is I can assure you that I will reprimand her.”
Josef softened his tone, deciding that the man had suffered enough.
“No, there’s nothing wrong. I was merely curious that’s all.”
Kassel exhaled audibly and with visible strain repeated his earlier question,
“May I get you anything else sir?”
“No thank you, you may go.”
Kassel nodded without clicking his heels and departed leaving the door open and leaving Josef with a mug full of hot water. He carefully stepped over to the window, deftly opened it and tipped some of the scalding water out. He then set the mug down and went out into the corridor sniffing. Any trace of lavender that might have been there before was now gone. Shaking his head he stepped back into the room shut the door and proceeded to shave. Of all his daily rituals, this was the one that he disliked the most. Still, standards had to be maintained. Having finished, he put on a shirt and buttoned up his tunic, half hoping to find more luxuriant golden hairs from the crown of the mysterious and no doubt alluring Sophie. Of course there were no more. He had this one strand of evidence to verify her existence. He sighed and thought,
“Oh well, she’s probably some staid old spinster if her father was anything to go by.”
Returning to his bedside, he splashed on a little cologne, taking care not to spill any. The liquid had the paradoxical quality of burning and cooling his face at the same time. Its scent was strong and heavy, cheap, in a word. He would have to get something subtler he decided, citrus scented possibly. But the likelihood of obtaining something half decent these days was slim at best.
Putting on his cap and stepping out into the corridor, he headed towards the officer’s mess. The corridor was empty but as he approached his destination, the door opened and out stepped an officer wearing a uniform identical to his own but with slightly wrinkled sleeves. The officer smiled.
“Good morning Josef.” He then screwed up his face, “Urh, what’s this, you smell like a whore’s boudoir I once used to frequent.”
“Rudi, please, at least have the common courtesy to address me by my rank when you insult me. That, at least, I am due.” Rudi clicked his heels and bowed ostentatiously.
“ Begging the major’s pardon. Will the major be requiring one or two lackeys to kiss his royal backside this morning?” Josef laughed loudly whereupon Rudi raised a hand to hush him and pointed down the corridor,
“Be quiet, or the old man will hear you. Apparently he’s just received a letter from the wife informing him that she’s going to leave him and run off with another woman. Needless to say, he’s hopping mad.” Josef fought hard to restrain himself.
“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind. Are you going to join me for breakfast?”
“No thanks. I’ve just had some and I’ve got a consignment of construction material to sort out. They’ve sent us too little timber and steel again and the wrong damn rivets.”
“Are you surprised? Materials are hard to come by these days.”
“ I know, but don’t forget, we are constantly told to build, to expand and to improve efficiency at all levels. But how the hell are we supposed to do it without materials?”
Josef nodded. He knew the demands of headquarters well. He was about to speak when they both heard the distant sound of a plane engine. Both men glanced up at the ceiling for a long moment until the sound had faded away.
“One of ours?” offered Rudi with a tone of mock hope in his voice that Josef didn’t notice.
“I very much doubt it.”
“ Oh well, at least we’re not a strategic target for the Bolsheviks just yet.”
Rudi turned to leave when Josef asked,
“Rudi, who pressed your uniform?” Rudi looked down at his tunic, found nothing wrong with it and said,
“Theresa always does it, like a good little wife. Why?”
“ Oh, nothing. It’s just that the old man has hired some new domestics that’s all.” Rudi’s eyes narrowed and he gave Josef a sly smile.
“See you later. Oh and don’t forget, I’ve still got that bottle of Tokay.” With that he strode off whistling tunelessly. Josef stared after him for a few seconds then turned and pushed open the mess door.
Inside the ambiance was wonderful. There was a fine bar from which the comforting, sweet and varied smell of beer and other beverages emanated and the room had space enough for one to either sit in a quiet corner or socialize. Josef was delighted to see that someone had gathered flowers and placed them in a vase upon the bar. The supply of drinks had dwindled somewhat in recent months and Josef made a mental note to speak again to the Commandant; who had already assured him on a number of occasions that he had sent strongly worded requests for re-supply to the appropriate office in Berlin. Their reply was eagerly awaited.
He sat down at his usual place near the window and looked out at the garden – not much of one he always thought but pleasantly green nonetheless. Glancing around the room, he noted that the tables had been set neatly and correctly. He picked up a knife and tilted it towards the window looking for water stains or fingerprints. Finding none, he thought, I will have to commend Kassel and his family. They are obviously professionals. Next he picked up a fork but this time discovered the print of a slender finger half way up the handle. He smiled as he examined the print’s maze of lines for a moment then became self-conscious and looked around him.
The room was virtually deserted save for a group of five men, all junior officers, that he didn’t know at a far table who were engrossed in the study of statistical charts and dad not noticed his presence much less his inspection of the cutlery.
What barbarians, he thought. Only the uncouth mix work with pleasure. And he congratulated himself that he never discussed work related issues at the dining table no matter how pressing they were. In an attempt to annoy the ill-mannered louts he began to whistle. Quietly at first, then louder and louder he performed the badinerie, that wonderful concluding movement from Bach’s second orchestral suite. At first he whistled the original then introduced subtle variations of his own. Bach, he felt sure, would have approved. One of the philistines glanced in his direction for an instant before his attention was refocused on a particularly troubling set of figures pointed out to him by one of his less easily distracted companions.
Staying with the estimable Johann Sebastian, Josef had just begun the opening movement of the third Brandenburg Concerto when he noticed that a girl was standing next to him. Unused to surprise, he looked up at her with a hint of annoyance creeping into his eyes. Something about her looked familiar then he noticed her hair. She smiled down at him,
“Good morning Herr Doctor. I’m sorry to interrupt you, but are you ready to order?”
His face cleared.
“Yes, I’ll have oats, with honey and apricots. Toast, three slices. Coffee and warm milk.”
The girl smiled and nodded confidently as she wrote the order down in a small notebook.
“Would you like something to spread on tour toast?”
“Yes, do we have any butter?”
“I think I can find a little for you but I must apologise Herr Doctor, we don’t have apricots. Would you like prunes instead?”
“Very well.” This time she curtsied and turned towards the kitchen.
“Just a minute please.” The girl turned.
“Is your name Sophie?” She smiled again and replied,
“Yes Herr Doctor, Sophia Kassel.”
Josef studied her face. She was very attractive, wore no makeup but clearly didn’t need it and she was making eye contact with him, showing that she had a bit more backbone that her father. She carried herself proudly and she had the most beautiful blonde hair that he had ever seen. Might Aphrodite’s golden tresses have looked like that, he wondered.
“Will that be all sir…?”
“Yes Sophia, thank you.”
He watched her as she strode towards the kitchen. She had a nice figure, tall like her father but totally different in attitude. His reflections were suddenly interrupted by a furious barrage of laughter coming from the bureaucrats, those puny sons of Goliath, seated at the far end of the room, so he diverted his attention to the window. It was a beautiful, clear summer day, warm and intoxicating. He wished he could go fishing or on a picnic or, if he had a bicycle, he would ride and keep riding down to the sea, no matter where it lay. He would take Sophia along and they would pick wild flowers in the fields and listen to the shrill song of the cicadas – the original voice of summer, was that not Plato’s phrase? His mind now took him back to one glorious summer when, as a seventeen-year-old, he had visited Athens in July. The whole city was bustling with activity, alive with music and redolent of rosemary, basil, thyme and roast lamb. But most of all he remembered how he had sat atop the Agoraios hill in the shade of the columns of the Hephaistion and imagined himself back in the age of Pericles, listening to the tireless drone of the cicadas. He sighed and thought
what a waste it all was, to be stuck here with the small men, the underlings, the rubber-stamp wielders and the paper priests.
He was about to turn from the window and cast another dark glance at the minions at the far able, when a dull thud caught his attention. Something had evidently hit the window. He got up, looked down at the ground outside and noticed a swallow. The small bird was mildly dazed but otherwise appeared unharmed. He smiled at it and whispered,
“You’ll have a sore head for a while my fine brave fellow.”
He turned just as Sophia emerged from the kitchen expertly carrying a tray upon which, in sumptuous array, was his breakfast. He smiled appreciatively at her and sat down.
“Here you are Herr Doctor.”
“Thank you Sophia.”
“Not at all sir.”
She set the tray down and was about to depart again when he asked,
“Sophia would you do me the honor of joining me?”
“Thank you sir, but I’ve eaten already.”
“Well then, what about a cup of coffee, since you don’t seem to be too busy at the moment?’
She looked around unsure for a moment then said,
“All right, thank you.”
He got up and pulled out a chair for her next to him. Amiably he said,
“Please sit down.”
He then noticed that there was only one cup. Sophia realized this too and was about to get up when Josef raised a hand causing her to relax and sit back. He then strode briskly into the kitchen, startling Kassel in the process who was stirring a pot of goulash. He smiled at the man without saying anything, found a cup and saucer and exited.
“Now, how do you like your coffee?” he asked.
“White, without sugar please, sir.”
He made the coffee as she looked on, handed it to her and she accepted it with a slightly unsteady hand. He then poured himself a cup and said,
“Here’s to your health.”
“And to yours sir.”
“Please, let’s dispense with the sir. My name is Josef.”
“That’s all right. I can understand that this uniform can be intimidating.”
“I must apologise…Josef, but we’re new here and still under probation.”
“I understand. I’m sure it’s just a formality. I met your father earlier. Where are you from?”
“Magdeburg originally. We lived in Berlin for a while until we were posted here. What about you?”
“Oh I’m from Vienna but I lived in Berlin for a few years too.”
“You’re Austrian…like the Fuhrer.”
“Yes indeed.” He nodded at a loss for what else to say. She looked at him, her face passive and took a sip of coffee.
“How is it,” he asked.
“Fine, thank you”
He took a gulp of his own, found it too hot, swallowed uncomfortably and then proceeded to pour in too much milk. He took stock of himself. Was he nervous, he asked himself? Were her beauty and charm intimidating him? Surely not.
“Well, what do you think of the facilities here?”
“Oh, they’re fine, although the last cook left the kitchen in rather a muddle. It took us a while to get it back in order.”
“I’m sure you and your parents will do a splendid job.”
“Actually it’s just my father and I.”
“Oh, I apologise, I thought…”
She cast her eyes down and quietly said,
“It’s all right, we lost my mother over a year ago in an air raid. That was one reason why we wanted to leave Berlin.”
Josef stared at her silently; he rarely felt anxiety and was seldom at a loss for words. At last he said,
“I’m sorry Sophie, that’s terrible. Please accept my sincerest condolences.”
“That’s all right. You’re very kind Herr…Josef.”
“Do you have any siblings?”
“No, it’s just me and Papa. Do you?”
“I only have my mother. I had a younger brother but he was killed at Stalingrad.”
She said nothing but looked at him with such compassion that it made him sigh. They both sipped their coffee in silence and Josef ate a few spoonfuls of oats. The paper brigade had departed and they now had the whole room to themselves. As he noticed the muted notes of birdsong filtering in, Josef nodded towards the window and said,
“ It’s such a beautiful day outside.”
“Yes, it certainly is. I love this time of year don’t you?”
He nodded, then, dragging his eyes away from her face, noticed a brooch that she wore just below her collar.
“That’s a lovely piece.”
She reached up and touched it.
“Oh, thank you. It was my grandmother’s.”
She unpinned it as though to examine it closer but instead handed it to him. This demonstration of trust surprised and pleased him and he accepted the brooch with interest. It was beautiful; an oval amethyst set in a finely granulated spiral band of gold. But it was what was carved on the amethyst that most impressed him. There an ancient master lapidary had cut a wonderful representation of a naked girl holding an ear of wheat in one hand and a pomegranate in the other. He looked up at her,
She looked back at him with puzzlement and asked,
“Do you like it?”
“It’s marvelous, probably late Hellenistic Greek or Augustan.”
She knitted her brow. He smiled and said,
“I’m sorry. Late centuries B.C. or early centuries A.D. I would say.”
“Really, I had no idea.”
“Oh, the setting is modern but the stone is certainly ancient and a beautiful example too. It depicts Persephone the goddess of the underworld, the Queen of the Dead.”
“You are a connoisseur, Herr Doctor.”
“No, no but I’ve studied a little.”
“You’re too modest Josef. My grandmother had this all her life. She gave it to me three years ago on my thirtieth birthday. I’m willing to wager she had no idea how old it was.”
He looked up to find her draining her cup. Quietly he said,
“We are the same age,” and reached for the coffee pot, half expecting her to protest. Instead she smiled as he poured her another cup then handed the brooch back. He then said,
“You’re very fortunate to own something like that,” and again glanced at the tranquil scene outside. He wondered, - had the birdsong become sweeter?
“Is it worth a lot of money, do you think?”
A pale shadow of annoyance crept into his mind; the girl had clearly missed the point.
“It most certainly is but I meant that since it’s an heirloom it may have a great history and has something of who knows how many owners about it. I mean that each of the people who owned this, going back into antiquity, has left a part of themselves here. Just as this was a part of them, so too they have become a part of it.”
He looked into her eyes for a hint that she understood but found much more, behind her sweet smile lay the glimmer of fascination. He boldly took the brooch from her and pinned it back onto her shirt, ensuring that he used the existing pinholes. Noting with satisfaction that he encountered no resistance from her, she didn’t even lean back or look away.
“There, that’s splendid.”
“Thank you, Josef.”
She was about to take another sip of coffee when he asked,
“What time do you finish work today?”
“I have the afternoon off. My father is going into the town for a few fresh supplies but it’s nothing he can’t manage.”
“Wonderful, would you do me the honor of joining me for a drive?”
She hesitated for a moment then said awkwardly,
“I would love to, when would…” and she suddenly looked up. A young officer had entered silently and he was standing right next to Josef who was looking at her so intently that he hadn’t noticed the younger man’s presence. The young man glanced at the barely eaten breakfast, saluted and said,
“Major, I’m sorry to disturb you but the transport is due to arrive in twenty minutes.”
Josef struggled to contain his annoyance,
“Yes, thank you Zimmermann.”
As the young officer saluted and left, Josef looked apologetically at Sophie but now her smile was gone, replaced by an odd expression and she was holding her breath.
“Where can I find you this afternoon?” He asked dryly.
“Here at two,” she replied quietly.
He hesitated, trying vainly to read her mind then said,
“Two o’clock then.” Then, somewhat relieved he added, “Have a good morning.” Almost inaudibly she replied,
Her reply had the affect of hastening his departure. He left without looking back, more certain than he had ever been of anything before in his life, that her eyes were at that moment fixed upon him.
Afternoon came and with it a gentle breeze. As they drove, the cloudless sky looked to Josef bluer than he could ever remember seeing it. As their Daimler passed by, the trees that lined the roadway seemed almost to bow to them, each offering its shade and inviting them to stop. The rolling hills too seemed somehow more welcoming while the blooms grew in greater profusion, their colours brighter and more varied. Were they, he wondered, or was it he that had changed?
Sophie too imagined that she was nearing some magical kingdom that she might have read about as a child, a land of peace and tranquility, a place of infinite possibility.
They drove on, past sleepy hamlets where giant walnut trees grew, past picturesque ruins overgrown with thorny blackberry vines and across shallow, swiftly flowing streams whose pebbles could have been gems as precious and rare as Sophie’s amethyst. At length, they reached the top of a rocky hill and looked down upon a tranquil valley that was the indefinable epitome of beauty. Here they stopped to pick poppies, that most delicate and ephemeral of flowers whose petals, like crimson snowflakes, wilt and fall at the merest provocation. High above them an eagle soared. Its wings never seeming to move, it just hung there motionless as if suspended by a gossamer thread. They sat upon the grass and watched it for a long time until it drifted imperceptibly away. By this time the sun was growing cooler as it progressed westward. So, with bunches of poppies in hand, Sophie got back in the car. As Josef sat beside her and reached for the ignition he felt a slight pressure on his shoulder. Turning, he noticed that it was her delicate, long fingered hand, as exquisite as Japanese ivory. As gently as she had placed it there she now took it away and again he saw that glowing smile.
“I’ve had a wonderful time today Josef. Thank you.”
“No, thank you for your company,” he replied, perhaps a little too formally.
They drove back and after a couple of hours they could see in the distance a tall, drab cylindrical pillar, like a monstrous stalagmite except for the plume of black smoke that issued from its tip. It marked their destination. Sophie looked at it for a long moment. It was a cold reminder that just beyond these idyllic hills there lurked an altogether different and far less tangible reality. Or was it the other way around she asked herself, was she leaving a realm of illusion to reenter one of real menace and dread? Looking at Josef’s handsome brow she saw a bead of perspiration and took out her handkerchief. Reaching over, she gently wiped it off. He smiled and they drove on.
That afternoon became the first of many. Venturing out even when inclement weather threatened, their time together was blissful and after that first afternoon Sophie never again looked at the distant chimney, moreover she noticed that Josef never looked at it either. He simply trusted the road to lead them back, no matter how far into the countryside they had ventured.
In the autumn months that followed they spent more and more time together, in conversation, on long walks, they listened to music and they made love. Love that was at first tentative and awkward, but as their passion grew, desire overwhelmed hesitation and awkwardness disappeared. They became perfectly attuned to the needs of each other’s bodies and soon their nights together became for both a glorious symphony of the flesh. Neither could imagine such bliss without the other and each was a lesser being when they were apart.
Early one morning in Josef’s room, as a cold light began to creep in through the window, he awoke and lay awake for an hour looking at Sophie. Her hair was an ocean of gold, he mused, her skin a silken cloth, softer and finer than that which any loom could hope to weave. Her eyes, closed were like two dark calligraphic strokes, her mouth, a luscious fruit, one taste of which was more addictive than the most insidious drug. He smiled inwardly. She must have looked like this as a baby, he thought. He leant over, buried his face in her hair and inhaled deeply. She had a wonderful wholesome aroma, like the smell of freshly baked bread. So unlike his own which he always considered to be salty and acidic. She awoke and found him gazing into her eyes. She smiled then promptly rolled over away from him.
“ Oh, don’t tell me it’s time for me to go. I’m sure Papa can cope on his own this morning.”
“Hush, It’s almost dawn.”
“Hummm….Then kiss me.”
She turned back; they kissed gently and soon made love again. That morning though and for the last few weeks, something had been different, for both of them now increasingly felt a secret foreboding, a growing fear of fate to which they could not admit. So they made love with a wordless abandon and it was in those brief hours together, those selfless hours spent in each other’s arms that they came closest to forgetting their unknown but doubtful future. Love was their nirvana, a realm at once beautiful and empty, dead yet more alive than life itself, a place of paradox that was preferable to logic.
They lay back exhausted and for a time traveled in their imaginations to exotic and bizarrely sensual oriental kingdoms, far from anything that they had ever known, where the only familiar things where themselves. After the fantasy had faded and their laughter had subsided, Josef got up and walked over to his chest of drawers, opened one and began to search through the contents. The noble image of his naked body reminded Sophie of pictures in books on sculpture that he had shown her. The inverted triangle of his back,
his legs with their precisely defined musculature and the compact package of his buttocks, which more than hinted at the energy that they contained. Was he not like the Belvedere Apollo? Did he not echo some lost masterpiece by the hand of Polyclitus, who was renowned amongst the Greeks of his own day and was still famous although time had largely consigned his works to oblivion?
“His reputation alone guarantees his immortality,” Josef had said, one afternoon when she had spent a few wonderful hours with him learning about ancient Greek art.
He how turned and walked back to the bed carrying something small. She caressed his physique with her eyes and immediately felt a familiar tingling sensation begin in her feet then travel up her spine eventually saturating her entire body. She threw aside the covers savagely, wriggled and slowly spread her legs. He took in her unbelievably beautiful form and sighed. He sat down next to her and straight away she knew by the expression on his face that he was troubled.
“Sophie, my love, I want you to promise me something.”
“Anything,” she smiled indulgently, secretly hoping that this was some kind of game. But when his look intensified she knew without a doubt that he was serious.
“What is it Josef?’
“I’m going to entrust this to you.” He opened his palm like a conjuror to show her a small brass box. It looked heavy and she saw that it had a tight fitting lid.
“What is that?” she asked innocently.
“Never mind. I’m going to give this to you for safekeeping. You must promise me never to misplace it and you must swear never to open it and if I ever need it, no matter where I am, you will do your utmost to bring it to me. This is very important to me Sophie.”
She stared at him for a moment dumbfounded then took a deep breath and said,
“Very well Josef, I promise….and I swear.”
She was confused and felt a little hurt by his enigmatic manner but at the same time she was flattered by his demonstration of trust and confidence in her. She took the box. It was indeed heavy for its size. She turned it over, it was unmarked and no sound came from within. He took her head in his hands.
“Promise me again,” he whispered.
“I promise,” she replied almost in tears.
He smiled and kissed her. She felt that she had passed some sort of difficult test and pleased him. She was happy but his suggestion that at some point in the future they would be parted filled the back of her mind again with dread. He lay down next to her and she hugged him. He was once more intoxicated by her scent but this time, faintly, almost imperceptibly, mingled with her sweetness there was a hint of lavender.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Josef was always on the ramp early. None of the guards could ever remember him missing a shift or being late and today was no exception. It was a cold, clear, still day and the guards snapped to attention as soon as he appeared. He took his position at the top of the ramp and looked down at each of them. They liked him, he thought, or at least didn’t dislike him. They always remembered his birthday and smiled before saluting him. Moreover he was young and not a stern disciplinarian like some of the camp’s more senior officers. If it was not for his level of education and impeccable racial background their positions could very well have been reversed.
On this particular day he had been assigned a new man, a private to guard him at the top of the ramp. Manpower must be at a premium, he reflected as he scrutinized the gawky youth whose eyes were fixed on the train tracks down below.
“What is your name private?”
“Have you been a member of the S.S. long Demmler?” He asked this with a hint of irony, knowing the answer full well.
“ Er, no sir. I joined up last year. It was either here or the Russian front.”
Josef did not reply and the youth shifted uncomfortably in his boots. At that moment the train came into view as it rounded a large clump of trees far to their left.
“Keep your wits about you Demmler and above all stay calm.”
“And not so loud, I’m standing right here.”
“I’m sorry sir.”
Josef’s attention was drawn back to the train. It was the first transport of the day. Over the years he had become used to the sight and sound of these big locomotives but the spectacle of the hundreds who were soon to disembark - that was always unique.
At the bottom of the ramp a group of guards stood watching the train’s steady approach. As it came alongside the ramp Josef summoned his strongest voice and firmly ordered,
“Take your posts!”
As the train stopped the guards in pairs, marched up to the sliding doors on each of the seven cars. Josef could see Captain Eberhardt move to a position at the center of the siding. When the guards were all in position, Eberhardt ordered them to unlock and unbolt the doors then haul them open. For a moment nothing happened, causing Demmler to cast a side-glance at Josef’s impassive face. Then slowly gray, shabby figures began to climb stiffly out of the cars. Each figure looked about at first then up at the sun. It was impossible to tell where they had come from or the ratio of men to women or to distinguish any definite characteristics at all from a distance. From this point of view it was always one homogeneous gray mass that issued from these trains. As the mass began to approach, the guards directed them to the far end of the ramp whilst forming the mostly shambling figures into one line. They then directed the line slowly and steadily up the ramp towards Josef. He watched the process with mild satisfaction. He ran a tight and disciplined shift, no pushing, no yelling, no obscenities and above all calm. Those were his orders and his subordinates knew them. That was the way to efficiency. He made a mental note to have a word with Demmler after the shift rather than risk this raw recruit compromising the smooth running of the disembarkation and selection process.
The line had now reached a point half way up the ramp and it was time for him to do his job. He stepped forward to face a group of several women. All were thin, haggard and tired but the luster had not completely gone from their eyes. Two smiled wanly at him, others thrust out their breasts while some raised their heads and arranged their hair. He had observed these gestures time and time again and usually ignored them. This group all looked middle aged or younger and reasonably fit. He pointed and said, “Right.” And they went past to the right. Next came a group of seven men, all fit and reasonably young also. “Right.” Then a woman in her twenties with a man of sixty or so, father and daughter judging by the resemblance. “Right.” And they passed silently by. There followed a group of five women, all about the same age as him, two of them extraordinarily attractive. Unexpectedly, he felt the impulse to speak,
“Are you fit enough to work ladies?”
All at once they answered,
“Yes, yes, certainly sir – We can all work – Most certainly sir.”
“Very well, please go to the right.”
Their eagerness was engaging and he was about to allow himself a rare smile when he noticed a young woman from a few metres down the line, pushing her way forward, crying and distraught. The woman fought her way up to him cursing at her fellows. Josef took a step back whereupon Demmler lunged forward and struck her in the throat with the butt of his rifle. She fell, arms flailing. Josef turned and glared at the pimply youth.
“Private!” Demmler swallowed hard and twitched. “That was completely unwarranted!”
Seething, he fought to control his anger. A pained and embarrassed expression now settled on Demmler’s unrefined features,
“I…I’m sorry sir but I thought…”
“ You thought nothing private! Now help her up.”
Awkwardly the youth helped the woman to her feet, dropping his rifle in the process. It rattled heavily on the concrete as the woman tried to speak.
“A…A… I’ve been sep….separated from my hus..husband. Please help me.” She coughed violently then in his most benign tone Josef said,
“Don’t worry, please go to the right. I’m sure he will be here somewhere. Where you boarded together?” The woman nodded,
“Well then, please go to the right.”
Demmler let go of her and she staggered off down the right hand path where a group of women helped her to proceed. Calm soon returned as the selection procedure continued into the morning. Josef dismissed Demmler and confined him to barracks. The man had earned himself a transfer, Josef thought darkly; perhaps he would be more use to the Reich on the Eastern front. He didn’t need a bodyguard in any case. These people had no fight left in them. Their spirit was broken.
Looking down the line, he noted that there were no children, no very elderly and fewer middle aged. The war and the ghettoes must be doing my job for me, he thought.
The beautiful cold, clear morning wore on and just before midday as the last few gray figures shambled past, Josef saw a tall bald man of about fifty, fourth from the end of the line, with eyes downcast. Something about this man seemed familiar. Now the man stood before him and Josef smiled, looking into his desolate cold blue eyes, eyes that had not smiled in years. Gently he asked,
“Are you able to work?” The man looked up and hesitantly said,
“You look fit enough to me.” The man looked around grimly then stared at Josef.
“No sir, I’m ill. I’m not able to work.”
“What is your name?”
“Simeon Klauberg, the actor?”
Josef remembered sitting and laughing at this mans antics on several occasions in Vienna when, as a boy, his mother had taken him and his little brother to the cinema. Josef looked him over. It was obvious that he had repeatedly wet himself. Not remarkable considering the long hours spent standing on the transports, but the stains running down his trousers were clearly tinged red and there were red finger marks on his jacket, even one on the yellow star that was sewn onto his breast pocket.
“Are you injured?”
“No sir, it’s my kidneys.”
“I see.” Josef said quietly. “Please proceed to the left Herr Klauberg.”
* * * * * * * * * * *
Sophie stared down the long dim corridor. It was silent and empty with a dusty smell that reminded her of moldy paper. The tall soldier that she followed walked briskly forward and increasingly she felt the urge to run away and hide. But where was she to go? It had been very difficult to get here, was she going to throw this chance childishly away? At that moment the soldier stopped and turned. His piercing blue eyes regarded her with barely veiled contempt. Loudly he said,
“Number eleven on the left. You’ve got twenty minutes sister. Do you understand?”
She looked down the corridor again and nodded slowly. Her command of English was good but she could not bring herself to speak to these men, these G.I.’s or whatever these Americans called themselves.
“I will come for you in twenty minutes – Ok.”
She nodded again and he turned and left. Alone she walked forward timidly, her slippers making no sound as she advanced. On either side of her stood rows of empty cells, each one seemingly smaller and darker than the one before. Her mind went blank, then she found herself thinking about a pet canary she had once owned as a child and the heavy iron cage an uncle had given her to keep it in. At last she reached call eleven, tears welling in her eyes, and peered in. There, upon a small dented steel bed lay Josef. He was reading a letter and wore an old pair of gray trousers that looked several sizes too big for him with no belt and a shirt that had once been white but was now the colour of old, poor quality paper. He had not shaved in months and his long hair was oily and tousled. He looked the very image of one of his ancient Greeks, she thought fondly; he could have been Trojan Hector or Achilles the son of Peleus. Then she remembered what fate had befallen both of these heroes and quickly put them out of her mind. She stood there instead gripping her handbag, her knuckles white, her throat aching.
“Josef.” She said, almost inaudibly, at last. He leaped up, dropping the letter and grinning broadly through his beard.
“Oh Sophie, they’ve let you come. I had no idea whether any of my messages would get through to you.”
He then noticed the tears in her eyes and his tone changed,
“Don’t worry dearest Sophie, I’m well. They’ve been looking after me. I can’t complain about the hospitality of our American comrades.”
He grinned again and reached out to her through the bars but she stood still, seemingly unable to move.
“Josef, Josef, what will they do to you?”
“I’ve heard rumors that I’m to be sent to Nuremberg but I don’t know why.”
She started sobbing and now walked slowly forward saying,
“Oh come here my darling, I’ve missed you so much.”
She pressed herself up against the bars and he did the same. They kissed tenderly and, for an instant forgot the impassable barrier that stood between them. Then, pulling away slightly he said,
“No one can say what the future holds for each of us Sophie, my love.”
“For goodness sake Josef, stop philosophizing and listen to me!”
He had never heard her raise her voice before so he stood motionless and looked at her like a chastened schoolboy. She looked down the corridor and when she was sure that no one was coming in a low and urgent voice, she said,
“Listen to me Josef, they know all about what went on at the camp. They have seen everything. But, listen to me, you must tell them my love; you must say that you were only following orders, from Himmler, from Eichmann, from all of those miserable bastards. Tell them Josef or I don’t know what will happen to us.”
He was silent for a few seconds then as he was about to speak, he noticed that she wore a tight headscarf. Reaching out he touched her cheek,
“What’s happened to your hair?”
Annoyed that he had changed the subject she replied sharply,
“I’ve had it shaved off – lice.”
Unconvinced by her answer he said,
“Take this scarf off please.”
She did so slowly, revealing a freshly shaved scalp dotted with scabs and scratches. His face fell.
“Who did this to you?” he demanded.
“It’s all right, it doesn’t matter, and I’m fine. It’s you we must worry about.”
He drew back and to her chagrin changed the subject again. In a whisper he asked her,
“Did you bring that box that I gave you?”
She was about to remind him of their situation again but instead reached into her cardigan, fumbled a little and pulled out a matchbox. He greeted the sight of it with a look of alarm, which she failed to notice. She handed it to him. It was, to all appearances, an ordinary matchbox but far heavier than any matchbox should be. It’s weight instantly relieved him and he opened it slightly, seeing within the now tarnished brass container that he had entrusted to her months before. With a voice full of desperation she pleaded,
“Josef please listen to me.”
“Have you opened it?”
“No Josef, you made me promise not to, remember?”
The tone of indignation in her voice how made him feel guilty. Driving the point home she added,
“I’m as good as my word.”
“I know you are dear one, thank you.”
“I put it in that matchbox in case the Americans searched me. They did, but not very well.”
It was obvious that she was telling the truth and he cursed himself for having doubted her. He took the brass container out of the matchbox, popping the latter into his pocket. He stepped up to the bars holding the box so that she could see it. She was intrigued in spite of the increasing turmoil in her mind. He clicked a tiny button and the lid of the box sprang open. There, upon a lining of purple velvet, Sophie saw a coiled strand of golden hair – her hair. She smiled,
“Josef, you sentimental old fool.”
A warm feeling filled her as he beamed a smile back and said,
“It’s just as well I kept this one, as all the rest are gone.”
She wanted to kiss him but more urgent matters called.
“Josef,” she said bleakly, “The Americans have a file on you.”
He shut the box and looked at her in the eye,
“Yes, my love. Before they let me see you they showed it to me. It was full of photographs of terrible, horrible things. I know what went on at the camp but you…. you were only following orders...you were only a…”
“Do you believe that I did those things to those people in the photographs?”
She began to cry, “I….I know that you are a good man.”
Despite her tears he now regarded her coldly and said,
“I did do those things Sophie and much more that you can’t imagine.”
“No, no my love, it was not your fault. You were following orders. You must tell them that.”
“You’re right, I can tell them that and it would be the truth.”
Her face brightened a little before he added,
“But there are others Sophie who were following orders from me and I guarantee you that right now they are telling their interrogators exactly that. I regret what I did but nothing I can say now will change it. And, I’m certainly not going to deny anything.”
She began to cry again and he stroked her cheek.
“But can’t you see, you were a government functionary. What you were doing was legal. The government are to blame, not you. Those experiments and the killings were fully sanctioned by your superiors. I just can’t understand your attitude.”
He sighed deeply and raised a conciliatory hand to wipe away her tears. Quietly he said,
“Torture, slavery and murder are wrong Sophie irrespective of whether a government makes them legal.”
“But I know that you are a good and kind man.”
“How sweet of you to think so my love, but to the world I am a criminal and a monster.”
“Oh Josef, damn you. How can you be so calm about this?”
He stepped back and after a moment gently replied,
“Our good Americans have given me much time to think.”
He smiled sadly only to be answered by fresh tears from her. He then pressed up against the bars and they kissed. As they did so, warm salty tears trickled down his nose and into his mouth. As he began to enjoy the sensation, Sophie pulled away and in a breathless whisper said,
“Josef, I’m pregnant.”
He was stunned but made an effort to hide his surprise by kissing her forehead tenderly and whispering,
A warm sensation began to fill him, he heard her inhale as if she was about to speak but she gasped instead. The tall, stern eyed G.I. was approaching. Urgently they kissed again, desperately squeezing each other through the narrow bars. Now the soldier was upon them.
“I’ll come again as soon as they’ll let me. I promise. They have to let me see you again. I’ll beg them to show you mercy, my love. You’ll see, everything will be all right!”
He let her go, his fingers catching a last fleeting sensation of smooth skin. The soldier had taken her by the shoulder and was leading her rapidly back down the gloomy corridor. Josef struggled to catch a last glimpse and saw that she too was looking back. Then she was gone.
A moment later he heard the clang of a heavy iron door and as its echo died away he stepped back from the bars. As he did so he realized that he was grasping the brass box tightly in his right hand. He dropped it into one of his pockets where it hit something with a metallic note. Investigating he found, apart from the empty matchbox, a fifty Reichspfennig coin. He examined it closely; 1935, the year he had joined the S.S. Eleven years ago.
He could remember shaking Himmler’s clammy, bony hand, putting on his smart gray uniform with its black rank patches for the first time, and the respect that it had earned him and the fear that it had produced in people. How his world had changed since then! He turned away from the bars and saw the letter on the floor. It had a gray footprint on it – his own.
He picked it up and tried dusting it off without success, vaguely remembering having once read that in India it was considered very bad luck to place writing or a book on the floor and ever worse to put your foot on it. He set the letter down on the bed, sat next to it and stared out through the bars.
He had been awake for two hours he estimated so his guards would soon be bringing breakfast. He didn’t have much time. Suddenly an image entered his mind. It was of himself and a child, a little boy looking up at him with bright, pleading eyes. It could have been the face of a thousand children, a face that he used to see on the ramp, an anonymous and desolate face, beyond sorrow, beyond suffering, beyond fear, beyond hope. A face that he sent to the left, left, left, left, left, left, left, always and forever left unto oblivion.
But somehow he knew this child’s face. It was Sophie’s face and his own face – the face of their son. Then the little boy’s expression changed, from one of entreaty to a look of bitter accusation. He shuddered and took the brass box out of his pocket. He opened it and looked at the little coil of Sophie’s hair. He smiled and carefully took it out placing it on the letter. Next and with some difficulty, he tore the purple lining out of the box. There beneath it, held firmly in place, were two tiny black glass tubes. With the nail of an index finger he carefully pried them out and cradled them in his palm. He then replaced the torn velvet and the coil of Sophie’s hair and put the box back into his pocket. He opened his palm. The little glass cylinders were no thicker than the lead of an artist’s pencil and as he looked at their black luster he felt strangely comforted. A moment later he heard the muffled crash of a heavy iron door from somewhere. It was a common sound in this place but this time it sounded a warning. He placed both of the little tubes in his mouth as though they were aspirin. His mouth began to fill with saliva and then hesitation gripped him. His mind went blank. What was he to do? Then he heard the distant voice of a child call – Papa. And he bit down hard on both the cylinders.
The glass broke easily but he felt nothing, then he swallowed. A tremendous burning sensation instantly overwhelmed his senses. So great was its intensity that he fell back hitting his head on the wall behind the bed. As the tide of pain in his throat and chest rose rapidly he tried to open his mouth but only succeeded in biting his tongue, or so it seemed. Then he thought he could feel his hands and knees trembling and a great weakness in his legs, followed by a strange warmth. Next he felt his joints move of their own accord then tighten like a vice. This was followed by visions of distorted faces belonging to men with blue eyes dressed in dark green. These men, he couldn’t tell how many of them there were, now yelled at him with unintelligible words, pulling his clothes and shaking his shoulders. At last he tried to tell them to leave him alone but they were gone, vanished as suddenly as they had appeared and with them the great burning was gone also.
Now, dimly, as if by the first rays of dawn, he saw a tree and recognized it. It was followed by another, different but also familiar. Then the faint outlines of a garden appeared. He was confused, but then it came, mildly at first but quickly growing richer - the scent of lavender and with it understanding.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Private Grant and Private Jones looked down at the twisted body of their prisoner. Twenty minutes earlier they had brought his breakfast only to find him shaking, convulsing and bleeding from the mouth. Not having any medical training, they at first suspected epilepsy but upon checking the man’s pulse and finding it very weak they ruled this out. Now he was dead. They pried his mouth open but could see nothing for all the blood from the severe wound on his tongue. Then they thought to search the body and upon discovering the brass box, the fate of their charge became clear.
“Shit, the goddam son of a bitch has taken something,” said Grant, fingering the torn velvet inside the box and causing the only other contents to fall unnoticed to the floor.
“Yup, it sure as hell seems that way.”
“What are we going to tell the Major? The shit’s gonna hit the fan when he finds out about this.”
“How the hell should I know what we’re going to tell him?”
“But where did he get it from? He was thoroughly searched when they brought him in weeks ago.”
“Wait a minute. It must have been that broad. Yeah, his girlfriend, she was here a little while ago. I brought her in.”
“Wasn’t she searched at the gate?”
“Yeah, but they must have missed this.”
“Who’s on duty down there today anyway?”
“Robinson and Lowensteen.”
“Well let them take the rap for this.”
Silently they stared at the half opened eyes, at the spots of blood that speckled the old shirt, like fallen poppy petals. Jones again searched for a pulse, then the two attempted to straighten out the contorted limbs. Failing, they stood back.
“Has he crapped his pants?”
“No, only pissed ‘em. I’ve heard it happens. It’s a side affect of the cyanide or whatever the hell it is they use”
“Well, you can bet that if the Russkies had caught him he would have been fried a long time ago. Have you seen his file?”
Jones then picked up the coin, inspected it briefly and pocketed it. Meanwhile Grant was squinting at the letter, running his eyes over the feeble, spidery hand in which it was written.
“What does it say?”
“Mein geliebter sohn…” offered Grant.
“What the hell does that mean?”
“I know it’s Kraut goddammit but what does it mean?”
“My beloved son, I think it’s a letter from his mother.”
Jones shook his head then spat on the floor,
“Even this goddam Nazi asshole was some old lady’s son.”
“Forget it. Let’s get him cleaned up before the Major gets here.”
Grant threw the letter onto the dusty floor where it landed on top of a tiny coil of gold.