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The Lost and Found Boy
What he had done to deserve this was beyond his realization. Beyond mine, as well. Not that I am one to be perceptive; no, I most certainly am not. My name is Helen. Helen Bouhler. And I am here today to tell you a story. A gruesome, horrific, beautiful story. I just can't hold it in anymore. Someone, anyone has to hear. You have to listen. Listen so you can tell your children, and they can tell theirs, of the Hell on Earth, the violence, the hatred. Just listen.
It was 1943, three years into World War II; a time of killing, bombs, and incessant worriment. For the lucky ones, anyway. For Matthew Schmuel it was hell, eternal damnation. It was the odor of burning bodies and the sight of rib cages, the most prominent aspect of the walking dead in Auschwitz I. These people today, they sue for unfair conditions, by which they mean not enough breaks. I would have died for what they have; clean water, food, employers who didn't put a gun to your head every time you spoke, or made any implication that you are, in any way or form, human. I almost did, you know. But enough of me. Today, I am only your guide. Welcome to Nazi Germany, a time when death was more appealing than almost anything you can dream of.
“Please, Mrs. Bouhler, sit down, relax, have some tea. Imported directly from Germany,” Mr. Bormann offered. He was my husband's close friend and head officer of the Nazi Party Chancellery. For a man who could permit such atrocities, even commit a few himself, he was quite charming.
“Directly imported, you say? By that, I take it you mean from the labor camps themselves.” He and my husband, Mr. Philip Bouhler, head officer of the Chancellery of the Fuhrer, exchanged a long, worried glance, as they both shuffled uncomfortably in their
“Mrs. Bouhler,” said Mr. Bormann, “Please understand that what must be done, must be done, if it benefits the motherland. What the Fuhrer says, goes without question. With him, our country will rise beyond any other. Please.”
Even if it means killing hundreds upon thousands of innocent people, solely because of their Jewish or non-Aryan background? I had wanted to say. Of course, at the time, I did not, because I did not know. I was clueless on the matter. Until I arrived at the Auschwitz camps, where my husband of five months was sent to work for purposes I was not privy to. I stayed within the apartment we had been presented with by the government. I had no business outside, where, just beyond the gates across my new home, was death, beckoning. My husband was there, discussing some matter or the other with his fellow head officers. I was only nineteen years, then; a beautiful, bright, and carefree woman whose smile lit up an entire room. The one who could charm even the cruelest, unmoving Nazis, and whose beauty never failed to mesmerize a crowd. The girl with the quick wit and unfailing tongue, who had an inexplicable knack for words. I suppose my girly curiosity got the better of me, though, after a few months of residing in the dark, sullen apartment. One nippy, picturesque autumn day, I grabbed my fur coat and scurried out the door, eager to desert my rather unwelcoming habitat.
The Nazi guard of the camp (his name, I have long forgotten; in any case, it is better that way), a tall, intimidating being, greeted me warmly after I explained to him my husband's position. He offered to accompany on a tour round the camp. Curious, fascinated, and completely unknowing, I agreed happily, longing for company and new surroundings.
Above my head, as we entered Auschwitz I, my eyes stared unblinkingly at the words above: “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work will give you freedom). A betraying sense of hope seared through my veins. I had known there were prisoners encompassed within this arena, for I had seen them enter through the large, French-style window in the living room of the apartment. It had not occurred to me that none of those prisoners ever stepped out. The guard explained to me how Auschwitz I was the main base, yet the smallest part of the camp. I wondered why they called it a camp. The stench of human blood encircled the campus. When I was a young girl, my mother had sent me to “camp” over the summer. We played sports, had ice cream, and floated freely in the lake. Here, there lay bodies; thin, fragile bodies. And the guard was showing the camp as if he were proud of it. He probably was. A sudden wave of nausea and disgust swept through me. The soulless, hollow eyes of the limp bodies bore into me.
I looked away from their hungry, pale, sickly bodies, only to turn to see a man of maybe 21 years, standing no more than ten feet away from where my feet were glued in horror. That face. I knew it from somewhere. I could tell, beneath his sleep-deprived state, that he had been handsome once. Beautiful, even. Surrounding me were the bones of men, or possibly women. With clean-shaven heads, one could never be sure. But the man ahead was obviously detained recently, for a wild mass of deep brown curls fell over his forehead, and his clean features were strongly chiseled, but almost delicate. A mouth that at the moment looked lifeless, whitish, but which might have been sensuous once upon a time. A body that was lithe, flat-muscled, and tall. A long nose. One of a Jew's.
After marrying my husband, he described to me how the Jewish infiltrated Germany, how they were traitors and conspirators, how a vast majority of them were homosexuals. I could never understand his hatred for them, as they were human, beautifully, wonderfully human, just as we were. But in his mind, they were vermin. Vermin without souls or hearts. I had many Jewish friends growing up. They were as human as he was, perhaps even more. But I had realized that too late. He was not nearly as thin as the crumpled bodies cast around, and a fierce blaze in his golden eyes sent a cold shiver down my spine. Eyes of hope and rebellion. Eyes of a boy who was always determined to beat me in a race, who refused to eat dinner with the proper utensils, rather, his hands; who kissed me first; just a peck on the lips, but a kiss, nonetheless. Eyes of Matthew. Matthew Schmuel, my best friend, lost and forgotten in a swirl of memories.
The guard had left to retrieve my husband, leaving me to stare into this man's eyes. How different we were, yet so similar, as we were both trapped in worlds because of how we looked and where we came from. Tears welled in my eyes. He advanced toward me, as if mesmerized. He must have thought me to be some kind of apparition, the way he looked. Such intensity, curiosity, and hope in a single gaze. I couldn't tear my eyes away. Matthew was barely a foot away from me when he reached out to touch me. His thin hands, though rugged, grazed my cheek as a single tear fell from my unbelieving blue eyes. I caught it, his hand, and for a moment, we just stood, watching each other. Communicating solely with our eyes; his hurt, my regret; his dream, and mine, to be free.
All at once, I couldn't support my own weight. I could feel his arms holding me. I had no sense of my surroundings. I was a floating white light and the only solid thing to hang on to was him. He was holding me so tightly, it hurt. I let it hurt, though, because all around me, others were hurt so much worse than I was. All I wanted was to be hurt. I thought that if I was hurt enough, then maybe, just maybe, they wouldn't be hurt as much. That Matthew would be the boy that I remembered, just once more.
“Filthy Schwine! You Jewish Arschloch! Get your hands off my wife!” Matthew released his grip on me, and now there was nothing to keep me from falling onto my knees. I gave out a little cry, a choked sob, at the horrible sound of my husband's voice. To think he was contributing to this...this murder. This butchery, massacre, manslaughter. I cried out again, louder this time, and I somehow, miraculously, managed to gain a stance.
“You savage, cruel, monster. Can't you see what you've done, what you are? This is murder, this is inhumane! It is not the way things should be. They, him,” I pointed frantically at Matthew, not realizing the ill fate I had now plagued him with, “they did nothing, nothing wrong! They are Jewish, so? It is just religion, for God's sake. How could this be happening?”
My husband marched forward. I thought he would hit me, shoot me even. No, he merely took hold of my wrists, and spoke in a hushed manner to the guard who had brought me to him.
The ugly Nazi guard took out his gun, from his pocket. Somewhere far away, I heard myself scream. I thrashed and struggled to release myself from my husband's grip.
But the gun was not pointed towards me. Instead, at Matthew. I could feel it, what he felt. A direct conduit seemed to have opened between us. I could feel his terror, his astonishment, his shock. He was breathing rapidly and shallowly, and a fine trembling seemed to have taken over his body. Matthew must have felt how horrified I was, because the last three words that came out of his mouth were, “It's all right.” I realized that he had stopped trembling. His voice was almost dispassionate, and at the same time madly gentle and reassuring.
The cold metal came, forced against his flushed skin, awkwardly poised with evil intentions at the hands of the guard, who now seemed to be enjoying watching my face. I could see it in his deep blue eyes, the lies festering just beyond reach in that deluded mind of his. 'Love' they called it, 'a better world' they promised, but all I could smell was death. I couldn't see anything anymore. My eyes were brimming with tears. Reality was growing darker as I watched the guard savor Matthew's last moments. I could feel the resignation flood through Matthew's veins as he stood, staring his fate straight in the face. Harsh words passed between those paling lips, none of which I could hear anymore.
My eyes had cleared, by then. Just in time to see Matthew smile, the fever of realization bringing the smile forth before he could quell it.
The resounding crack of truth echoed through him, causing the whole world to shudder, to weave in and out between reality and make-believe. Dirt filled his lungs and coated his mouth, the blurry thought that he should have said something, anything to Helen. How she was still the bright light that pushed him, the fiery blaze in his eyes. And she always would be. But now, it was only another thing he should have done. There were too many 'should haves' to count, now.
Noise, drilling against his eardrums in a cacophony of bees and bells brought him back to the here and now. He coughed, spitting out the bits of the ground he'd inhaled, then looked directly, unabashed into the eyes of the guard, red band standing out starkly against the monotone the world had taken to.
It was the color that caught his eye, bright red like the flags and badges and blood shamelessly flaunted, of the band; of Helen's hair. She stood, still and weeping, hands held tightly by the man who must have been her husband (but he couldn't think of that, not now), the unmoving barrel nestled in his dark curls. Emotion swelled in his chest, forcing him to look away and back to his own hell. He didn't dare look at Helen. What could happen to her if he did, he didn't know. Nor did he want to.
The heated barrel at his head, he gazed, one last time, into its sinister smile, all the things in his life flashing before his eyes. Warm summers spent as a youth with Helen, her fiery red curls bouncing as they raced in his uncle's orchard, her kiss, his parents and brother...So many memories and regrets filling his head, but only one truth remaining: he would die here, without ever getting the chance to take revenge, to never be able to tell his parents how much he loved them, to never tell Helen what she was to him. The only little source of comfort he gleaned was her, strong and still by his side.
He allowed himself a last glance from her blue, blue eyes as the click of the pistol being cocked sent all thoughts from his mind. There was no mercy today. Inhale, his eyes closed and his arms spread. Exhale, the deafening violence of a fingers twitch tore swift and cut clean. All the world went dark, and somewhere, he heard her cry...
“How could you?” I whimpered, my lips trembling as my husband and I left Matthew's lifeless body on the cold, hard ground. He did not respond. I was given only a cold, cruel glance, as we drew nearer to his quarters.
I left, later that day; left that wretched, cursed place in Poland, but it did not leave me, no matter how hard I tried to forget. I tried so hard. I truly did, but nothing could make me. I used to think that because of my innocence, my obliviousness, I was condemned to a
life of regret. I was haunted by Matthew's death. Still am. But in that last glance, I saw the blaze; those eyes could blaze even in the darkest of caves. A wish, hidden between the flecks of gold and red in his eyes. I looked up to the sky, a blood red sky. I screamed at it.
“Father God, please. I ask you to open your ever-widening arms. Look at me! Lead me, let me know what I should do to stop this, this terrible, terrible holocaust.”
They all said, when it ended, “never again.” Never again would such mass murder occur; never again would there be anymore mindless bloodshed. Sixty years and six genocides later, I fear I am unsurprised by the fact that genocide is at large. But last night, I heard a whisper in my head, a slight, deep whisper, the voice of a friend's. “We all have the power of love, of creation, if goodness, of God inside of us. And this is the power that can destroy the darkness, destroy the thing forever.”
A voice, I said. A voice of hope and rebellion. The voice of a boy who was always determined to beat me in a race, who refused to eat dinner with the proper utensils, rather, his hands; who kissed me first; just a peck on the lips, but a kiss, nonetheless. The voice of Matthew. Matthew Schmuel, my best friend, lost, then found; forgotten, then remembered, in a sudden whirl of memories.