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Nicht dass Verschiedene (Not that Different)
“No, No, No,” Carol hisses. “It’s wrong, so wrong.”
“How can you say that? These people are animals and they don’t deserve life.” My voice is climbing with stress and irritation. My wife, Carol, leans back against the kitchen counter, resting her aching back. Her pregnancy makes her ache all the time. Now, despite my irritation, I lean forward to help her stand. She flinches away and glares at my boots on the scuffed wooden floor. Carol’s eyes travel up to rest on my insignia, as if she is trying to burn them off with her gaze alone. Her glaring eyes finally flit away from my uniform to rest on the Cross, hanging on the kitchen wall. Her face seems to soften for a second. Her hair is ruffled, like a troubled bird, and her cheeks are pink. She begins to speak again, her voice low and sarcastic.
“They remain human though, despite your beliefs, Stefan. And the children! What crime have they committed? Why do they deserve this? You shove the children into the gas vans, heedless to the cries. You kill them as they scream for their mothers. You are my husband, but what I know you do everyday drives me away from you! And what if the next person you are ordered to shove into a van is me, or our child?” Carol is ranting, but after this sentence her stormy eyes fill with tears and her hands come to rest on her stomach, like she is protecting our unborn child.
I’ve had doubts about my job before. My mind flies back to the Lidice children, who were gassed in Kulmhof. They had cried, and screamed. Kulmhof. I roll the name around inside my head. I’ve worked here for three months, and before here in the Lodz ghetto, Poland. Here in Poland after leaving beautiful Germany. Carol has spoken to me less and less over the last three months. At the thought of her, I glance up and see her eyes still filled with fright.
I cannot understand her fear. “Why would they ever put you or our child into a gas van?” I ask, aghast. “You are a beautiful, loyal citizen, and our child will be. You are not some animals!” Is she trying to tell me something? Has she betrayed the Fuhrer, or spoken with communists?!
She looks at me sadly and sighs. “Yes, I am a good, loyal citizen. But what if I wasn’t? What if I disagreed with the new government, or if I was Jewish or a gypsy. Would you put me in the van without a second thought, if I was a little different from you?” Carol’s words hit me like a grenade.
“No, never! How could you even think that? I would never put you in a gas van.” I’m yelling, outraged by the thought, panic rising with every note. But Carol looks calm, even slightly proud.
“What would make me different from any of those women?” she asks calmly. Before I can even begin to formulate a reply, she leaves the room.
I stalk over and turn the radio on; Carol’s parting words are still ringing in my ears. I can come up with a million different reasons, but somehow, in the face of her last statement, none of them seem to fit. All of the Fuhrer’s persuasive words are suddenly tainted, confused. All his explanations are suddenly senseless. Who is right? The Fuhrer, who has led this our fair Germany into a war, bringing revenge for the grievous insult of the first great war, who is so persuasive that he could convince you that the sky is green, or my wife. My wife, my Carol, whose words have confused me so much.
These thoughts spin round and round in my head as the radio announces huge German casualties outside the Russian city of Stalingrad. I sigh, knowing what will happen tomorrow. I know that for the rest of the week I’ll have to gas a lot of prisoners as a punishment for this crime against German soldiers. I also know I should feel proud, but I don’t.
Outside lightning cracks, and thunder follows quickly. Over and over the thunder rumbles like boulders falling against each other. I await the coming rain, hoping the steady patter will ease my thoughts. The violent display outside continues, but no rain falls. I pull away from the window, unsettled by the strange display. It seems sinister. I push this feeling away as no more than the ramblings of my inflamed mind. My thoughts continue to spin, sliding back to Carol’s words, as I slip off my boots and uniform. I sit on the sofa, knowing Carol will not welcome my presence tonight. As I drop my uniform, my badge plunks against the wooden floor drawing my attention to my insignia.
My SS insignia, that I was so proud to receive, confuses me. What does it mean? Pride, as the Fuhrer says, or murder, as my wife claims? These thoughts swirl through my head like ink in water, keeping me awake, listening to the thunder still booming in the absence of a steady rain. An over-arching pattern forms, echoing through my head in the dark reaches of the night. Who is right; who is right; who is right? The phrase booms through my consciousness like a broken record, rolling with the thunder, until I finally drift off into a restless, peace-less sleep
Over the next week, I can’t stop thinking about Carol’s words. How can she think she is equal with these animals? My beautiful, pure German wife is so much better than any Jew. And yet, when I catch a woman’s eye, or hear a child’s scream, I feel. . . Mitgefühl. Compassion. I push it away as fast as possible but it creeps back in, none the less.
Friday morning, I rush out the door and begin my walk to work. The fearsome lighting and thunder from the night of our fight is gone. For the past week the air has been gray, oppressive and heavy. For some reason the weather makes me nervous. After about 20 minutes I see the sign for Kulmhof Extermination Camp. Instead of the rush of pride I would normally experience, (working at such a prestigious camp), I feel the same confused feeling I’ve had all week. I hurry toward the office and receive my orders for the day. I listen with dread as the officer announces the extent of the gassing we have to complete today. This is the greatest number of prisoners yet. I force all thoughts of confusion out of my head.
“Yes, sir” I say to the officer handing out orders. “Heil Hitler!” I turn and force myself to march toward my post at the gas van. My mind is spinning, the thoughts I banished only seconds ago pushing back in. I stumble over a rock, my boots clattering over the ground. I barely manage to stay upright and one of the officers yells down “Hey Stefan, you drunk?” I nod, glad for the excuse. I haven’t touched alcohol in months, not since I found out Carol is pregnant, but at least this explains my behaviour.
Then the first load of prisoners is shoved towards us off the Lodz Ghetto train.
My bile rises as I see all the prisoners are women and children. They are forced towards us, many women gripping children by the hand, or picking them up.
A women screams, shrill and loud, “It’s the gas vans!” She turns to run, releasing the hand of a child in her grip. As she runs off, an officer fires his pistol. The woman does not fall. In fact, the shot seemed way off. The woman turns and screams, loud and heart-rending. I follow her gaze and see who the officer shot. The child trying to follow her now lies in a tarn of blood. The woman continues to shriek, not even breathing. Then another shot rings out, and she falls silent. The other women are being prepared for the gas vans. Some begin to cry, some hold their children close. The officers go around cutting the women’s hair. A prisoner is shoved over in front of me, and I notice something.
She is pregnant.
Suddenly my world spins. I see my wife’s face asking, the Fuhrer’s voice telling. A guard, one of my friends, I realize with terror, grabs the woman that was shoved and pulls her upright with a wrench. She grabs at her stomach, the same way my wife, my Carol, did the night before. The heavy air seems to grow thicker as the rest of the SS guards begin to ruthlessly pull the women forward.
A yell from above grabs my attention. I see our commanding officer screaming, face turning red, at me.
“What are you doing, SS Stefan? Get to work, or else.” I realize that while most of the guards have simply ignored my reprimand, the pregnant prisoner has turned. Her face is so much like Carol’s that for a minute I see my wonderful wife standing in front of me. Suddenly I snap.
I rush forward, pulling the woman’s arm out of my friend’s grip. I whirl around and start lashing out with my fists, the P38 pistol on my hip completely forgotten. Everywhere around me I see the black SS uniforms, exact copies of what I’m wearing. I strike out and I hear a guards arm crack. I hear the women and children still screaming for only a second before even that is eclipsed by something greater.
My wife’s voice is ringing through my head, echoing the words from our fight. Her voice is repeating, as every woman I see suddenly seems to morph into Carol. I feel someone over my shoulder, and I spin again, my fists cracking into a guards head. I have just enough presence of mind to avoid hitting any of the prisoners. Ducking, dodging, and twisting, my world becoming a sick dance of revenge. Her voice continues to boom through my head, the beat to which my body moves. Every reaction has become primal, instinctive.
Suddenly, lighting seems to strike the back of my head. Pain and light bursts through my skull. An explosion, like a grenade, seems to go off, as whatever is causing this pain strikes again. My vision starts to flicker at the edges, black encroaching like wisps of smoke slowly growing into the warning of an inferno.
I drop to my knees, trying to fight the inevitable blackout. The ache in my head grows worse but it cannot block out the pounding of my wife’s words. Above even that I hear our commanding officer talking.
“No, don’t kill him now. He can die along with the animals he tried to help. Just make sure he’s knocked out.”
The lighting strikes the back of my head again and black covers my vision before I can even process what the commanding officer has said. My last thought before I black out is:
I awake woozy and in pain staring at a gray wall, not understanding. “Where am I?” I wonder. I’m lying at the meeting of two walls, face turned to the corner. I hear a faint step behind me and I push myself up and whirl around, ready to resume my attack if necessary. But I realize the noise was not another attacker. Rather, it was the footstep of a child. The child must have moved closer to her mother as I stirred. I stare at the people surrounding me. They are all women and children and they all look hungry and hurt. Something starts to stir in the back of my pain ridden mind. All women and children… Why?
Their faces are gaunt. Their skin is stretched so tightly that they seem to be skeletons with eyes. Eyes that are tracking my ever move, as if waiting for me to hurt them. I stare back for a second before I am forced to look away. In each of their faces I can see Carol.
“Where are we?” I croak hesitantly in thickly accented Polish.
An older woman speaks. “The same place you send so many innocent souls every day.”
With horror, I realize we are all standing in the gas van.
Another woman speaks up “I know you. You were a guard at the Lodz Ghetto before you were transferred here.”
“Yes,” I say hesitantly, uncertain where this is going. Does she want revenge for the awful crimes I committed in that ghetto?
But she simply nods and says “I thought so.” I’m confused by her lack of anger. How can this woman, who is supposed to be less human than me, have less anger in her soul; less revenge.
As this thought flies into my mind the back of the van slams open. I see a SS guard standing there.
He steps into the van and to leers at me. Then he steps to the side revealing...
Carol! My wife, grasped roughly by two more guards. She sees me and pain and sorrow fill her eyes. The first SS officer grabs her roughly and shoves her at me. He hisses “Here’s the die Sau who filled your stupid head with thoughts of rebellion, Stefan.”
Carol huddles in my arms as the officers step out, slamming the back. The lock falls with an ominous click. Now after a week I hear the rain fall from the pregnant clouds.Carol and I sink to the ground together. She gazes up at me, her beautiful blue eyes swimming with tears.
“I’m so sorry.” I whisper. I notice the other prisoners have backed off, as though letting us grieve alone. I am touched by their compassion. Now I wonder how I could have ever thought of any of them as animals.
Carol shifts slightly and my attention flies back to her. She whispers, “You did what was right”. Mixed with the sorrow and pain I see pride in her eyes; pride and love.
“But our child”, I moan, laying my hand on her stomach.
“No”, she whispers “I wouldn’t want our child born into a world with this evil.”
“The Fuhrer” I growl angrily. I reach up and rip off my insignia, throwing them to the floor. Next I rip off my swastika arm band. I am coursing with anger, my head pounding, but Carol’s voice cuts through my emotions like a knife through warm butter.
“Don’t,” she soothes. “Don’t be angry”
Then she begins to speak, her voice sweet; an angel’s voice.
“May God give you
Of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth
Abundance of new grain and wine
Let people serve you
And nations bow to you
Be master over your brothers
and let your mother’s sons bow to you
Cursed be they who curse you
Blessed be they who bless you”
To my surprise many of the women join in, their voices chiming together, turning this simple verse in to a beautiful hymn. Though all these women are Jewish, they join Carol, speaking the words of a Bible verse. For a moment, I’m confused. Where could Jewish women have learned a Bible verse? Then I remember. The Torah is the first five books of the Bible. This verse is from the Genesis, the first book. Then something occurs to me. I catch Carol’s eye, and finally I understand. We really aren’t that different, in the end. My own voice swells mingling with those of the women and we speak. We are one, undivided by religion, or any other line.
Even as the van begins to drive and the gas begins to enter we speak. We say it over and over till we cannot speak, until the air is burdened with gas. The last lines echo through the van.
“Cursed be they who curse you
Blessed be they who bless you.”