Liberation

[I wrote this in high school for a competition organized by Peaceworks, Seagull Publishers, Kolkata, that invited stories for peace from Indian and Pakistani students. My story was selected and included in the published book ‘Stories for Peace’, which it would be impossible to find anywhere now (this is the only place I see any mention of it). It was the only story in the book not about the India-Pakistan conflict. I did research on the Holocaust and the Bergen Belsen camp for this story, but the camp was only an idea in my head, until years later in 2011, I visited it during an undergrad exchange program to Germany.

I was the only passenger on the bus there and back, and in the falling dusk I roamed alone the grounds under which lay buried thousands of bodies.]

The warm April winds had started to blow over Celle since morning. It carried with it the smell of grass, fruits and fragrant German flowers, although it did not need a very careful nose to also catch the whiffs of gunpowder and burning. The wind wandered without aim over the fields and the roads, swirled about quaint farmsteads and swooped low over the airstrips, caressing the tarmac with its warm finger.

From inside the huge black stone building of Bergen-Belsen, there was no way to tell that there was a summer wind blowing outside. The only inhabitants of this institution who had the good fortune to feel it were lined up outside in the courtyard with their belongings and starting to be marched out of the gates. They would have to walk 20 miles to the nearest rail-station, and slowing down or stopping could invite a bullet. At the station they would be packed into closed freight cars and would head off in the suffocating darkness to the nearest death camp.

The greatest venture of human history was on. It was a daunting task, to delete entire races from the face of the planet, but the Nazis had shown that with careful planning, meticulous control and inflexible ideals, anything was possible. The ‘resettlement’ in the east had suppressed all uprisings with extermination camps — factories of death where Jews, Romas, Jehova’s Witnesses and similar filth would be flocked in by the thousands from every direction and killed in gas chambers or burned in pits. The Nazis did not wish this fact to spread, so the ones deported to the Auschwitz death camp would be kept oblivious of their fate until the very last moment. The ones who survived the train journey would be selected on the basis of physical fitness: right meant slave labour, ten to fourteen hours a day. Left was the gas chambers. The ones selected left would be requested to keep away their belongings and remember where they put them. Their hair would be shaved for making warm cloth, and they would be led naked into the chambers which carried signs outside saying ‘Bath’. Sometimes, to keep the panic down, they would be given towels and soaps. When they entered, doorways would be locked and pellets of Zyklon-B, the killing gas, thrown in through vents in the walls, and the ones inside could stop worrying about where they put their things. After the operation, the naked corpses would be surveyed for gold teeth or other valuable items. The bodies would then be removed and buried in pits in the ground, and the interior of the chamber cleaned by the Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners at the camp exchanging labour for a few more months of life. The belongings of the prisoners would be redistributed around Germany. Of course, accurate knowledge of what went on at death camps was scarce among the prisoners. What circulated was dark rumours and much-retold accounts of the very few who had been able to escape.

Many refinements of the killing processes had produced large chambers with greater accommodation, and more effective gases. All institutions — governmental, commercial, religious — did their own bit to facilitate this process of mass deletion. The result had been an efficient, large scale industrial process of extermination of the enemies of the Nazi party. Twenty thousand Jews could now be burned in a day, a huge improvement over the earlier methods. The undoable had been done; the Final Solution of the Jewish Question had been achieved.

But support for the great Nazi dream had waned. Some felt that the killing of industrially skilled Jews was an economic waste, some had slightly softer reasons. The Allies had gained power and fought back. Russia, America and Britain had begun to recapture the lands occupied by the Nazis, places where unreported torture and killings had gone on, villages where the air smelled of burning human fat. Slowly, the full scale of the Nazi project was beginning to be unfolded. In despair, the Nazis started pulling prisoners in eastern concentration camps further west and into the heart of Germany. Freight trains would bring hundreds of prisoners from eastern camps every day to the extermination centres.

Ernst watched the prisoners from where he stood in the line, holding on to his tattered cloth bag containing an irrelevant note scribbled by his mother a day before she died, half a cashew nut for his lunch, and two pebbles. Thin, skeletal bodies were piled high on both sides of the meandering alley in which the long deportation line now stood. Everyone’s face that Ernst looked at betrayed clear, prominent fear. German officers prowled the site, occasionally picking out children and old men from the crowd and shooting them. The shooting was very loud in the still summer afternoon, but it failed to startle even a child such as Ernst — he had got used to it.

Among the ones in front of him, Ernst could spot Heinrich, their neighbour, the one who had broken his kite and had had to make him another when he wouldn’t stop crying. There was Luise, Heinrich’s daughter, hidden under her mother’s cloak. She is trying to smuggle her daughter out of a concentration camp and into a death camp, thought Ernst. Ernst had spent a lot of his troubled childhood with Luise, running around their crowded ghetto when the German police were not present, climbing roofs and playing war, something for which they were never in short supply of inspiration.

He saw Bernheim further up the line, the young, lively man who always talked about hope, resistance and escape plans. Ernst could still vividly remember his wild, red face when he ran, breathless, into their room in the camp one day with a piece of paper in his hand. He talked very excitedly about peace and freedom, then laid out the paper for everyone to see. It was a news article in Russian, torn from the last day’s paper:

Soviet Troops Advance Further; Unearth Terrible Evidences of Genocide

Ravensbrück, April 10, 1945: As of now, the Russian Red Army has progressed further west in the attempt to drive back the Nazis from occupied regions where they had held Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and political opposers captive in different camps. Reporters accompanying our soldiers followed their progress, and write back that a lot of skeletons in the German closet have been uncovered. Among the evidence that has been found are unburied corpses at the German camps that number over thousands, gas chambers and burning pits, some of which the Germans have tried to demolish before leaving. German SS officers encountered at the camps have been forced to bury the corpses. Although it is evident that the Germans have tried to clean up the camps before leaving, the state of the camps conclusively confirms that the prisoners have been forced to live in abnormally crowded conditions. Although the survivors from different camps liberated by Allied troops are being treated at army camps, many of them have died since liberation from a fatal spread of typhus caused by the lack of proper food and sanitation. The colossal mass-elimination of the Jewish population has repeatedly been referred to euphemistically by the Nazi authorities. As events unfold, we only expect more atrocious evidences of the ‘Final Solution’ to come into full view of the rest of the world.

Air bombings by Allied Forces have, in the past few weeks, rendered many railroads defunct, and the primary method of deportation of prisoners to death and concentration camps has been growing increasingly difficult for the Nazis. Still, the Germans are trying their best to absorb the prisoners in eastern camps further west before the Red Army arrives. In spite of their efforts, the situation as of now vouches for a comfortable progress for the Allied troops into the west. Sources state that liberation of prisoners from the remaining death and concentration camps is only a matter of some weeks, after which the generals behind the Final Solution will be tried at courts of law.

‘Look, look!’ Bernheim stabbed his finger at the paper with burning eyes, his thin, starving face flushed and sweaty, green veins pulsing in his temples. ‘I told you! I told you to keep your hopes up and drag on for a few more days. Here they are! Here they are at last and the war is over, everyone! Now it’s just a matter of not getting deported west before they arrive. We’ll live! We’ll live, everyone, and they’ll let us out and we can have food and bathing water again, and freedom and peace!’

Bernheim hadn’t been lucky enough to escape the deportation today. He was standing in the grounds, sweating and fidgety, as the long line started to move slowly out of the gates. All his hopes of survival had turned to dust.

Ernst’s eyes hovered over to Officer Franz Meyer, a young German, possibly in his twenties, patrolling along the line, occasionally poking a prisoner with the end of his rifle. This was the last time Ernst would see him. The first was the day of their arrival at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It was some time after thirteen of them were shoved into a tiny room with one window and low murmurs had begun to grow out of the stuffy silence, that there came a loud banging on the door, and a gruff voice said in German to shut up or they would break in and shoot at random.

Every voice in the room died into a full dead silence at once, punctuated only by the loud and persistent crying of a baby in the darkness. The mother, trying to stop her child, looked around helplessly at the other faces staring at her from the shadows. The banging came again. Ernst was on the other end of the room, and in the darkness he could not figure out exactly what was happening, but he heard the wails of the baby being replaced by quiet stifled sobs.

Just when everyone thought it had passed, the door opened with a loud bang and an officer with a rifle entered, silhouetted by a surprising amount of daylight outside. He had bits of lunch and blood over his uniform. Behind him, outside the doorway in the bright sun stood a second officer, leaner and younger, squinting into the room. The one inside bellowed loudly in German in the same gruff voice, demanding to know who had made the noise. The mother put away her baby in another person’s arms and got up. The officer ordered her to come out of the room. She started crying, but obeyed. When she was outside, the officer aimed his rifle at the centre of her forehead and shot once. She fell, the blood slowly forming a halo around her head where she lay. The other, younger officer kept staring at her body for some time, before closing the door again.

After they went away that day, the baby was found to have been dead for some time. The mother had choked it.

The day after this, Ernst was summoned by the young officer after roll-call. As he walked up to him and stood, he felt a mad urge to run away, to shout for his parents, but then he remembered that they were long dead, and somehow that made him stand frozen in front of the lean, fair man.

The officer looked at Ernst for a few seconds, then asked, ‘Was ist dein Name?’

An innocent question like asking his name caused an amazing number of visions in Ernst’s head: the officer noting it down, making sure he would get selected for the deportation to the west, the long, frozen walk to the station across the dirty snow, the dark, packed freight compartment where many died, the death camp, the gas-chamber, the gas vents, pain, darkness.

‘Ernst, Sir. Mein Name ist Ernst Gruber.’

He surveyed Ernst with his cold, steel eyes for some time more, then shuffled in the pocket of his uniform. He produced a black cloth bag, took out a cashew nut from it and held it out to him. Ernst looked up at him in fear and apprehension. His eyes were still grey and cold, but he nodded once.

Ernst took the nut out of his hands and looked up again.

With the same impassive expression, Officer Meyer said in German, ‘Run.’

Ernst had heard about this a lot of times, and seen it once from the window of their room in the ghetto. A truck of German soldiers had arrived late one night and marched a number of Jews from downstairs out into the middle of the road. Then an officer had said, ‘Run.’ All the Jews had run, except one that kept rooted to where he was. The officers had shot after the running Jews, all of whom fell dead on the road. When the echoes had died and the night had grown quiet again, the officer had looked down and smiled at the person who had stayed put.

‘You didn’t run. Good.’

The man had smiled back with fearful eyes.

The soldiers had got onto their truck, and when it was moving out, the officer had shot the man from the back of the truck. The man had died with his hands clasped in a frozen gesture of mute surrender.

This whole vision came whirling back into Ernst’s head. He looked up once at the cold, unfeeling eyes of the officer, then turned and ran like a hare, his heart thudding in his ears.

There were no shots.

The day after, Meyer had come and taken Ernst out of the room. This time Ernst knew that he was done for. No German ever did anything good for a Jew. He had been foolish to imagine that the matter was over, that he had been able to escape from a German officer.

Officer Meyer told Ernst his name, gave him a cashew nut and ordered him to run. There had been no shots.

For a week this had continued, until Ernst slowly grew an inexplicable trust in him, and knew that he would not shoot. Why he chose to trust a German officer he did not know. Perhaps because in his world, he was running out of things to trust.

Today was Ernst’s eighth day in Bergen-Belsen, and he was standing in the line to be deported west, fully aware that children and old men were usually, although not always, dragged out of the line and killed on the spot before the walk began.

The other officer, the one with blood and food on his uniform was there. Ernst watched him approach Heinrich’s wife. He saw the girl she was trying to conceal with her coat, grabbed her thin arms and pulled her roughly out of the line. The mother fell to her knees, crying, begging, imploring. The officer held his rifle to her head and said in drawling German, ‘If you don’t want to die too, get back in the line.’

The mother got up, sobbing, and returned slowly to the line as Luise watched her in fixed disbelief.

The officer smiled at Luise and shot her in the chest. Her frail body fell without sound.

Something inside Ernst squeezed his whole soul into a tight fist. Luise. Luise of next door. Happiness, sunshine, laughter. His only friend. Now a starved, dirty mass of skin, bones and tattered cloth lying in the dust.

The officer stepped over the body and looked down the line. His eyes stopped at Ernst. The corners of his mouth twitched in satisfaction and he strode forward. At once, Ernst could hear his own heartbeat.

There was a sudden hard object on the back of his neck. He looked back to see Officer Meyer pushing his rifle nozzle into him. Meyer smiled at the other officer and said in German, ‘Relax, Otto. I’ll take it from here. You go see that side,’ motioning forward.

The other officer nodded, gave Ernst a menacing yellow eye and left. ‘Give him something he’ll remember, Franz,’ he said as he strolled away.

Ernst looked up at the cold steel eyes of Officer Meyer. He grabbed Ernst by the arm and pulled him out of the line. He held the rifle to the back of his head.

‘Walk.’

Ernst put his hands up in the air and started walking. They rounded a corner where there were no patrolling officers and the line of prisoners went out of view.

‘Stop,’ said Meyer. ‘Turn around.’

Ernst turned with his hands still in the air. The long black nozzle of the rifle pointed between his eyes. He looked into the darkness of the nozzle, then up at the officer. No German soldier ever did anything good for a Jew.

Officer Meyer looked at him coldly for a second — the huge, unfeeling black nozzle swaying in front of Ernst’s eyes — then said, ‘Run.’

Ernst turned and ran, clutching his tattered bag close to his body, his heart beating louder than the sound of his footsteps. He felt dimly the dirty stone walls of the camp sliding away from his vision, the many bodies littered high on both sides of the path, the ground thudding beneath his feet.

There were no shots. Ernst stormed into the room breathless. Every eye in the group surveyed him in mute surprise. He only stood panting, looking at the faces.

A few more hours of life.

After answering the eager queries as to how he came back and being generally disbelieved, Ernst sat down and opened his bag. Looking around to check if anyone was watching, he quickly transferred the half cashew nut into his mouth.

He was still chewing after the nut had long disappeared, rolling around the inside of his head its exquisite taste, when there were a couple of shots outside, and some shouting in a language he didn’t know.

Ernst had become so used to hearing gunshot that he could immediately tell that this sound was of a different kind. A different gun, different bullets.

He ran to the sole window before anyone could reach it. The whole room crowded around behind him and peered down.

A number of armed men in a different uniform were running through the courtyard while a few of them stopped the deportation line that was walking out of the gates. A few German officers were lying dead, along with the one who had killed Luise. The prisoners were frozen with fear. Ernst saw another troop of these soldiers run around to the back of the concentration camp. There were repeated gunshots. Five were the new sound. One was old. All around there was shouting — some in German, some in this new language.

There was a sudden banging on the door of their own room.

Everyone in the room froze. There were running boots outside. The banging came again, and a voice called.

 ‘We are British. We have come to save you. We are going to open the door, don’t be afraid. We have come to rescue you.’ Once in the foreign tongue, then in broken German.

Then the door was opened by a soldier in the new uniform. He stared wide-eyed for a few seconds, taking in the condition of the room and its inhabitants, then said in faltering German, ‘Get out. You’re free. You’re going to an army camp with us for food and medicine,’

A few seconds of stunned silence, then it was as if the whole room woke up as a single being after a long time. The murmurs grew to shouting and cheering, and they trooped out of the room, joined by other streams of half-naked and starving men, women and children running out of their dark prisons. Everyone had an inexplicable expression on their face as they absorbed the shock of this new reality.

Ernst skipped down the stairs, pushing through the crowds. All around him he could hear commands in broken German. When he reached the courtyard, he saw the bodies of German officers lying everywhere, in pools of blood. Some officers were knelt down beside a wall while a British soldier stood guard. So some had been left alive, thought Ernst, running through the chaos and shouting. He reached the gate. That’s when he saw it. He stopped suddenly and stared at it, panting.

Offcer Meyer’s body lay face up and spread-eagled just inside the gate of Bergen-Belsen, his steel grey eyes looking up at the summer sky. There was blood on his chest, and footprints. As Ernst stood looking at him, Officer Meyer’s impassive voice sounded softly inside his head, ‘Run.’

Ernst knelt down beside the body. He did not feel like crying. He did not feel like anything. He looked around once. No one was noticing. He slipped a hand gently inside a blood-smeared pocket of his uniform and drew out the black cloth bag of cashew nuts.

Ernst ran out of the gate of Bergen–Belsen concentration camp, pushing through the line that was being led out through the fields by the British soldiers. He broke out of it and ran to the middle of the field, panting heavily. He had eaten almost nothing in the past few days, but he wouldn’t touch the nuts.

As Ernst looked around, the rough ground beneath his naked soles, the warm summer breeze, the clear wide sky above his head, all came filtering slowly back to his consciousness after a long, long time. Ernst breathed in the smell of burning, gunpowder and wild German flowers. Peace, freedom. How would life be from now on?

He looked back at the camp. For the first time, the dark, inflexible stone walls of Bergen-Belsen failed to intimidate him. They only injected in him a sharp and painful burst of sadness. Luise, friend through so many times. The sunshine and happiness in his childhood life of squalor and hate. Ernst stared at the iron gates. They seemed to be calling him back. The dark rooms, the long roll-calls under the blazing sun, the alleys of the dead, the incessant shooting…

Ernst tore himself from the thoughts and looked back at the glittering blue skies and glowing summer fields through which the line of prisoners progressed. And very slowly, a vision seemed to form by itself in his head. Officer Meyer, and his steel eyes that never betrayed an emotion. The crystal summer sky in his eyes, and footprints on his chest. ‘Run,’ he said to Ernst, clear and gentle, motioning forward.

Ernst clasped the bag of cashew nuts tighter in his hand, gathered all the strength and hope he had left in him, and started running towards the long line leading out to the army camp.

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