Isn’t it strange that in all these years, I’ve never dared to tell you what I feel; and now – now, when it’s all so futile, and useless, I’m trying to tell you all that I feel, scrawling it out with this stub of a pencil on scraps of paper, squinting in the first of the morning’s light, the little that comes in through the cracks between the boards of the wall?
I realise that this letter will almost certainly never reach you, and, if it does, it will mean nothing to you. At the most you might get some random amusement from it. If so, so be it – there’s nothing I can do about that; but it is something I must do. If my life is to have had any meaning, I must write this, even if you never see it.
Perhaps it is better if you never see it.
Who am I? My name does not matter. Perhaps it never did; such as me have no right to a name or a life story; no individuality attaches to us. But, nameless as I am, I want to say what I write here to you.
I know you don’t know me. Oh, you know me – you’ve known me longer than you could have ever imagined, since we were both children in that city whose name I don’t want to think now, with its elegant cathedrals and green parks, through which we used to run – you with your parents, and later with your friends – and I with my parents, then alone. But you haven’t ever connected that time to this, followed through. And if you don’t get this, you shan’t; and that would be for the best. I don’t want to run the risk of causing you any distress. That’s all the gift I can leave you, bar one.
But, for my sake, more than yours, I still must write this letter.
I still remember how I saw you the first time up close, that summer afternoon when the golden sunshine was on the grass. That was I, the small dark-eyed girl whom you hardly noticed – but I noticed you, already tall for your age, already handsome.
Perhaps – perhaps sometimes, if you think back to your childhood, you might recall that time when we first came face to face. You were chasing your football, and it rolled up to my feet where I sat at the foot of a tree – which was where my mother had made me sit while she talked to a friend. I’d picked up the ball and handed it to you, and you’d looked at me out of those wonderful grey eyes and taken it from my hands with a muttered Danke. And along with that ball, my heart had gone into your hands – only you never knew it.
I shall not try your patience with a recitation of each time I watched you, in the park, in the street, riding your bicycle – on the sports ground, while I watched, always alone, always from the sidelines. Never was I part of any group of girls, but perhaps that was only natural, being who I was, and, more important, being what I was. After all, what I was – and am – is important. It’s why I am here now. Isn’t it?
Do you remember Herr Stadlbauer’s shop, opposite the Bahnhof in the old town? Of course you do; you must. You passed by there every evening, on your way back home, and three or four times a week you’d come in to buy cigarettes and the newspaper. Do you remember the short dark girl who served you, who was so clumsy and nervous that she kept making mistakes with the change and seemed unable to meet your eyes? I don’t think you do – but, of course, it was I. I lived those days for that glimpse of you; I waited the entire day for you to pass by, hoping you’d enter, and dreading my own confusion and timidity when you did. How stupid you must have thought me!
It was then, in the shop, though, that I got to know the things that still define you to me now, no matter what came later. I got to know your name, and that you were studying law; I found that you were quiet and serious, and that, unlike your fellow-students, you didn’t spend your spare time with a young woman on your arm. Oh, how my heart used to yearn to be the woman you could take around! But even then, I knew it was impossible, of course. Not because of who you were, or the difference in our social stations – because of what I was. What I am.
Each night I would lie awake, staring up at the dark ceiling of my room, my breasts rising and falling as I imagined you by my side, the feel of your body next to mine, and I could almost feel your kisses on my lips. And soon enough my hands would creep unbidden between my legs, to bring about the only solace my body could find. It was never enough, but it was all I could have.
My mother urged me to marry, to look for a nice boy of our own kind, as she said, and even set me up with one or two of them. But my heart was not in it, and she was sufficiently perceptive, poor lady, and too loving to insist on my marrying someone I did not wish to. She did not, of course, know of my passion for you – or things might have been different.
My father was still alive then, but already old beyond his years, worn out by his injuries in the Great War. I can still see him, sitting at the window, looking out into the street (it was called Goethe Allee then, but was later renamed Bismarckstrasse) with a glass of wine in his hand. Even when the brown shirts marched along to the strains of the Horst Wessel, he kept telling himself it would all be fine, that the two years he had spent on both fronts – the gas that had burned his lungs, the bullets that had torn his thigh – that it would all be a talisman that would protect us. He could not believe otherwise, despite the warnings the others (his friends and relatives, and even the rabbi at the synagogue, though he was an atheist who never thought to visit the place) gave him. He wouldn’t even consider emigrating, to drag his battered body to another nation and begin a new life all over again. And then it was all too late, of course.
I am glad he didn’t live long enough to see the camps. The unfairness of it would have destroyed him more surely than mere physical death.
I will say this for Michael Stadlbauer: he protected me for as long as he could. But they came for me at the cemetery, after my mother had been carried off by pneumonia and I’d gone to put a stone on her grave. He could not protect me then. Don’t blame Herr Stadlbauer; he thought he was doing his duty towards me. He didn’t see me as a Jewess, just a girl alone in the world. He was a nice man, old Stadlbauer. I wonder if he is alive today – I hear the city (your city and mine) has been very heavily bombed. I hope he is all right.
I remember that I’d seen you the day before I was arrested. By then you were in uniform, the peaked cap set high on your head, the jackboots gleaming on your feet. You didn’t enter the shop – you stood outside, looking up at the sky, perhaps, thinking of something. By then I knew enough to fear the uniform, but my heart went out to you – you looked like a vulnerable young god, sent on a task beyond your capability, trying to find the strength to deal with it. After I was arrested, I never thought I would see you again.
I still remember that winter morning on the Appel ground in here in the Altkirche camp, with the snow piled over ankle-deep and the Aufseherinnen screaming at us and lashing with their cellophane whips to get us, half-frozen as we were, into line. And there you were, on the wooden platform, staring down at us, a riding crop tapping at your thigh. And after that you walked down the ranks, smiling – your riding crop tapping a chest here and there.
In the months to come, the others nicknamed you der Lachelnde Tod, Smiling Death. I’m sure you know of it – and rejoice in it. It gave me no pleasure, though, to hear you called it, and I never replied or took part in discussions about you, though I joined in with the others in condemning the Angel of Death and the other sadistic overseers and guards at the camp.
How I hated in those days! I hated the silly Oberaufseherin trollop who preened by your side as you walked around the camp – because she shared your bed, and because she could be with you. Not because she spat on us and kicked at me once with her boot because I did not get out of the way fast enough. How I envied the succession of camp girls you took to be your personal servants! You got rid of them when they had served their purpose, when you had tired of them, but for a short time they shared your life. How I yearned for that proximity to you! After all, we’re all going to die here anyway – why should I forgo that little bit of happiness?
Do you remember the meeting which Himmler himself attended? I was the girl brought up from the camp, the one who waited at the table and brought food from the kitchen. I don’t know why they did that. Perhaps someone was amused by the idea of a Jewess waiting table for Himmler. But I remember not the Reichsführer, but you; the strain on your face, the weariness in your eyes as you nodded and answered the great man’s questions. And the moment he left the room, I could feel the relief with which you lit a cigarette and drew in the smoke in great draughts. I wished I could have touched your face, to smooth away the strain. You didn’t even look at me then, and I was not permitted to stay long.
My time is growing short, the light from outside stronger. Soon, very soon, it will be morning Appel. We all are well aware that the next selection is due today, and I know I am too weak to escape it. Today, you will stroll down the lines, and your riding crop will tap my chest. Perhaps your eyes will look into mine for a moment, those wonderful grey eyes, and I might hope to see a flicker of recognition. Probably not; I have changed, wasted away to a shadow of what I used to be when I handed you your cigarettes and copy of the Volkische Beobachter.
I've come to believe that you are, like me, someone caught up in the machine, shaped in your own way. We're all puppets caught up in a play not of our making here; and if it was not you, it would’ve been someone else who would kill me. And if I am to die, I'd rather die at your hands than at someone else's, even though it won't be your actual finger that will pull the trigger.
Soon enough I will entrust this letter to Beatrice, and ask her to see that it gets to you. I don’t know if she will – she may fear retribution, or she might read it and destroy it out of anger and disgust. I would not blame her for that, for to her you are Smiling Death, and in confessing my love for you I am desecrating the memory of those you have sent to the Shades.
In a moment I will sign and fold these scraps of paper. I will walk out to the Appel ground, no longer quaking with terror, but head held high, for terror no longer matters. I will wait for you to tap me on the chest, and I will stand aside to be led away to the trenches in the woods, there to await the bullet or pickaxe blow to the back of the skull. Three hours from now, these eyes will never see anything again, these hands never touch anything any more. What will happen will be beyond your control or mine; but as I am led away, I will turn my head back over my shoulder to look on you one last time.
And then, for the first time ever, I will be brave enough to give you a smile.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011