Thursday 20 October 2011

Fifty Years Later

I had been about to turn in for the night when there was a knock at the door.

I hesitated. Who would be knocking at this time of night? For that matter, who would even know that I was here, in this foreign city, in this hotel room at this time, and would moreover come up without announcement?

“Who is it?” I called. “What do you want?”

In response there was another knock on the door; a firm, clear knock, neither hesitant nor violent. Curiosity and caution struggled inside me. Curiosity won.

The man outside had his hand raised to knock again. He was tall – much taller than me – and though his white hair and moustache showed that he was at least as old as me, he looked much fitter. He looked down at me with penetrating grey eyes set strangely far apart. There was something extremely familiar about those eyes.

“May I come in?” he asked civilly enough, in English. Which meant nothing, because anyone can speak that language.

I stepped back, motioning him in. I was still wondering about those eyes. Where had I seen him before?

Closing the door behind him, he stepped towards me and peered into my face. “Well?” he demanded, in German, the last language I’d have expected to hear in this part of the world. “Don’t you know me yet?”

And then it hit me, with the shock of a physical blow.

The first time I had seen those eyes, they had been looking into mine from under a peaked cap lightly sprinkled with snow. It had been a freezing winter’s day, and we had all been lined up in the Appel yard of Altkirche concentration camp to welcome the new commander.

“Herr Hauptsturmführer!” I gasped, automatically stiffening to attention, as though the decades in between had never happened.

He inclined his head slightly. It was another gesture I remembered from then. We’d all learnt to get to know the guards’ and officers’ individual habits because often that was the difference between life and death. Altkiche was a concentration camp, not an extermination camp, but that didn’t mean one couldn’t die at any moment and without warning. “You haven’t lost your memory, I see, three-three-nine.”

This mention of my old camp number dispelled the last doubts I might have had. It was indeed Kessler before me, Kessler whom we had all feared instinctively, feared his wide-set grey eyes and his slow thin-lipped smile.

“Let’s sit down,” I said inanely. I wondered desperately where he had come from after so many years, and why he had chosen to visit me. “Do you want a drink?”

He shook his head, still staring at me. “No, I don’t want a drink. I see you’ve prospered. You’re looking good. Come a long way from Altkirche, have you?”

I shrugged. “It’s been a long time. I’ve had good luck and bad.”

“And what do you consider my turning up like this, good luck – or bad?”

“I don’t know,” I told him honestly. “Why have you come?”

“Perhaps I wanted to see if anyone still remembered me,” he said. “More specifically, once I saw you in the street today, I couldn’t resist following you until I found where you were staying. And then I hesitated only a bit before I told myself that having come so far it would be stupid not to talk to you when I had the chance.”

“How did you know it was I?” I felt stupid as soon as I asked the question.

“From the limp, of course.” He and I both looked at my right foot. “You still have that most distinctive limp, you know?”

I remembered how I’d got the limp. We’d been clearing out an old, abandoned factory when I’d stepped on a spike. The sole of my shoe had been thin, and it had stabbed right through my foot. I could still feel the white-hot shaft of pain.

For some reason, Kessler had been there that day. I remember seeing him drive out in his open-topped car as we’d been marched out of camp for the day’s work, so he must have come back at some point. Maybe it had amused him to see us work.

I had fallen to the floor, clutching my foot, blood welling through my fingers, trying not to scream, not to draw attention to myself. But I hadn’t been able to stifle a groan.

The noise in the old factory, of a hundred prisoners working, had faded away to silence in my ears. In that silence I’d heard a click, and looked up to find myself staring into the barrel of a rifle. The Latvian guard’s eyes, under the rim of his steel helmet, weren’t even angry, just slightly bored and contemptuous. In another moment he’d pull the trigger.

Halt!” Kessler had appeared at the guard’s shoulder. “Don’t shoot him.”

The guard had looked at him, puzzled. “Why not, Herr Hauptsturmführer? He is not able to walk.”

Kessler had stared at him until he looked away. “Because I say so,” he said, and then turned back to me. “You can get up?”

Gritting my teeth, I’d nodded.

Gut. Then go out and get into my car. And try not to bleed on the mats!”

He’d driven me back to camp himself, and even saw to it that my foot was dressed; all without a word. The next day he’d seemed to have forgotten all about it, and I’d been forced to go on Appel like everyone else, and then hobble to work. Soon enough the foot had got infected and swollen, and I’d often thought it would have been much better if the Latvian guard had been allowed to shoot me. But at last the foot healed, though I’d never been able to walk properly on it again.

“Why did you save me in the factory?” I’d been saving up that question for over fifty years. “Why didn’t you let the guard shoot me?”

Kessler shrugged. “It would have been a waste. I mean, just look at you now. Besides, it amused me.”

“It amused you?”

“Don’t you think it would? After all, to have the power of life and death – and to use it to grant life.”

“It was all a game to you, was it?” I asked bitterly, remembering what we had gone through during those years in Altkirche.

“Everything is a game,” he told me. “Don’t tell me you don’t know that. Life, death, the pursuit of money, love and sex, the thirst for power. It’s all a game, my friend. So why should it have been different for me?”

In the silence that followed, the ticking of the clock on the wall was very loud.

“Aren’t you afraid of the war crimes trials?” I asked. “You may have saved me that time, but you did more than your share of killing, Herr Hauptsturmführer.”

Kessler shook his head slightly and gave the familiar thin-lipped smile. “I’ve been running for fifty years and more. We’re both old men, and we aren’t far from death, either of us. Tell me, does the prospect of dying frighten you as much now as it did when you were young?”

I thought for a moment of youth and hope, and how the world had beckoned anew, even to a man with a crippled foot.

“Yes,” he said, watching me. “When one is young, one values what one wants. A kiss, the touch of a woman’s hand, the sight of a falling leaf in autumn, the lick of a friendly dog. One dreads prison or death because one is terrified of losing all that. But when one’s old, death’s going to come sooner rather than later, so it doesn’t really matter anymore.”

“So you’ll wait here if I call the police and hand you over?”

He watched me calmly with those grey eyes. “Are you going to hand me over?”

“I don’t know.” I moved irresolutely. “What about you? Where did you go after the war?” I flashed back to the last time I’d seen him. It had been another winter day, and we’d been marching west from Altkirche, which was being evacuated just in front of the advancing Russians. The guards, angry and nervous, had shot anyone who dawdled. Kessler, who’d been transferred from the camp months earlier, had driven past in his open car. Our eyes had met a moment, and then he was gone in a flurry of snow.

“Ah, that’s a longer story than I have time for right now. I had a hard time for some years, before I could work my way abroad. Then I set up my own business under a false name, and even managed to find a girl who was willing to marry me. Of course, she had no idea who I used to be, and still doesn’t.”

“She’s alive?”

“Did I imply otherwise? She’s at home now, waiting for me to return. Of course,” he added drily, “she’s not a girl any longer.”

“So you live somewhere nearby, do you?” I asked.

“No, I’m a visitor to this country – as you are. My plane leaves at dawn tomorrow.” He glanced at the clock on the wall. “So, are you going to call the police and turn me in?”

I shook my head. “No, but you knew that already, didn’t you? Even before you knocked on the door?”

“I pride myself that after all these years I know my fellow man,” he said without apparently noticing the irony of the last three words. “All right then. I’d say auf wiedersehen, only I’m pretty certain we won’t be meeting again.”

“Wait!” I said, when he was at the door. “Why did you come here, really?”

He looked at me, his eyes full of a strange and terrible sadness. “I can never go home again,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hang on to a bit of the past.”

There was nothing more to be said. We could have been friends, he and I, if the situation had been different. That was the worst, ugliest part of it. We could have been friends.

Instead, a lifetime had gone by, and we were two old men in a foreign hotel room.

The door clicked shut behind him, and I went, belatedly, to bed.

I did not sleep. I was afraid of the dreams. 

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

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