The Commandant’s office at Altkirche Concentration Camp occupies a surprisingly pretty building on one side of the Appel ground, opposite the path from the main gates. Its walls are made of thick wooden logs, weathered and polished, and the roof slopes almost like a Swiss chalet. In summer, ivy crawls over the walls, so that it looked more out of place than ever.
It was a day in early summer, and hot, as I walked down past the nearest line of barracks and on to the Appel ground, so that I paused to take off my cap and wipe my face. The yellow dust of the square blasted heat and light back at me, so that I had to squint, and I didn’t envy the guards in the watchtowers and at the gates.
A work party of inmates was smoothing the dust of the square, pulling a heavy roller under the supervision of a Kapo. I paused for a moment to watch. The Kapo – a huge man, with a scarred face, thick neck and muscled shoulders – didn’t notice me at first. A couple of his men, though, did, and looked up. The Kapo turned to see what they were looking at, saw me, and whipped off his cap.
“Attention,” he yelled at his squad. “Take off your caps!”
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask them to carry on – I’ve never enjoyed being saluted by the inmates, knowing that they did it only because they were forced to. But I was right opposite the Commandant’s office, and ten to one the Old Man would be watching me through the window. Being “slack” with inmates wasn’t something I needed to be accused of.
“Everything all right?” I asked the Kapo, while his squad stood rigidly at attention. “Any problems?”
“No, Herr Untersturmführer,” he said. I watched a drop of sweat roll down his forehead, along the groove of the scar on his cheek, and drip off his chin, and wondered if it were from the heat or from fear. A Kapo who was found to be too easygoing didn’t last long as a Kapo. “Everything’s fine.”
“Good,” I said, not very loudly, and turning my face away from the office. “You’re doing an excellent job.” I looked past him at the others. “All of you.”
The Kapo heaved a visible sigh of relief. “Get back to work,” he yelled. “Quickly!”
As the prisoners bent over their roller handle, I walked up the steps to the front door of the Commandant’s office. His assistant, a very young Schütze with a thin, face, glanced up, saw me, and jumped to his feet.
“Heil Hitler, Herr Untersturmführer.”
“Heil Hitler,” I told him. “The Old...the Commandant sent a message saying he wants to see me.”
“Yes, sir.” He looked down at a diary on his desk. The Old Man insisted on diaries, as though he were still running his old lawyer’s practice in Hamburg. “You can go right in.”
“Thanks.” I had a sudden urge to laugh. He was so pale that he seemed to be all of a colour with the diary page he was studying – skin, hair, even his eyelashes, were translucent, like frosted glass. “What’s your name?”
“Wunsch, Herr Untersturmführer. Johann Wunsch.”
“Well, Schütze Johann Wunsch – do you like working here, in this camp?”
“Yes, of course. I’m happy working in whatever capacity the Reich decides.”
This time I actually had to choke back a snort of laughter. He was like a marionette hooked up to a gramophone. “Do you know what this is about – the Commandant’s summons?”
“No, sir. He’ll tell you, I’m sure.”
“Hmm. Yes.” I walked past him and knocked on the door to the inner office. It was already ajar.
The Old Man was reading a document. He glanced up at me and quickly turned the paper over so I couldn’t see what was on it. Either it was something secret or he was doing it for effect. Probably the latter, since he was well aware that I was coming.
“Ah,” he said. “Stadlbauer.”
“You asked to see me, Herr Commandant.”
He ignored the implied question. “I was watching you through the window just now.” He nodded at the ostentatiously curtained aperture, letting me know that it was no accident. “Great, the way you kept the Kapo in line. Can’t let them get lazy, or they pass it on to the prisoners and the whole system falls apart.”
“Danke, Herr Commandant.” I studied the Old Man, trying to judge his mood. His heavy features were carefully neutral, giving nothing away. “You wished to see me.”
“Yes.” He leaned back in his seat and gestured at the chair across the desk. “Have you heard about the killing?”
“Killing? I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Which killing do you mean?”
“Not one of the inmates.” Not that, given the daily death toll among the prisoners, I’d imagined it was one of them. “It’s a guard.”
“A guard?” I was astonished. “Somebody’s killed a guard?”
“Yes. You weren’t here last night, were you?”
“No, Herr Commandant.” He knew perfectly well I hadn’t been there the previous night. “I’d gone to collect the barbed wire and cement we’d been promised. I just got back this morning.”
“Had any problems?”
“I had nothing but problems, Herr Commandant. The depot office didn’t even admit to having anything for us. When I showed our authorisation papers they said they could only deliver it next week. So I, er, arranged for the shipment to be expedited.” It had cost me a fairly substantial bribe; or, to be more accurate, it had cost the camp’s Jews a fairly substantial bribe, since it had come out of their confiscated property. “It should be here this afternoon.”
The Old Man nodded. “I’ll read it in your report.” I wouldn’t mention the bribe, of course, and he and I both knew that. “Now, about this murder...”
“You said someone killed a guard.”
“Put a triangle of steel between his ribs, smooth as butter. You know Anton Friedrich?”
“The one they call Hübscher Toni?”
“Handsome Toni, yes.” The Old Man grimaced. “Found this morning, next to Papa section. He’d been murdered sometime last night. With this heat it’s difficult to say just when.”
“Oh.” I thought of the implications. “Anything taken?”
“Not as far as we can tell. He was carrying an MP 40 submachine gun, and that was found on him, and all the magazines and ammunition too.”
“So it isn’t another brewing prisoner revolt like in Sobibor?”
“That’s the last damned thing we need, an inmate uprising. But there’s no indication who’s responsible. Could be a prisoner. Could be anybody.” He looked at me. “Now this is why I called you. I want you to find out who did it.”
“I, sir? Why me?” I was astonished. “Surely this is a job for the police? Or maybe the Gestapo.”
“Well, you are my assistant, you know. The Rapportführer. That’s why you. Besides, there are reasons why I’m not going to call the cops in.” The Old Man lifted the paper on his desk a little, and let it drop back. “I’ve been sent an unofficial word of warning. We’re going to have a...significant...visitor by the end of the week.”
“Who?” I asked. “The Reichsführer?”
“Hell, if it were the Reichsführer I wouldn’t be worried.” The Old Man glanced up at Himmler’s portrait hanging on the wall. “Actually, it’s much worse.” He leaned back, steepled his fingertips, and stared at me. “Sturmbannführer SS Dr Georg Konrad Morgen.”
The little hairs at the back of my neck rose. “The Bloodhound Judge.”
“The very one. You know he had Koch shot at Buchenwald, and Höss removed from command at Auschwitz. There’s plenty of others he’s put away behind bars, senior officers, much higher ranking than you or me. Morgen’s well named the Bloodhound. When he gets a scent trail he doesn’t let go.”
“What’s he coming here for?”
“I can guess, can’t you? Someone must’ve said things about Papa.” The Old Man and I both glanced instinctively in the direction of Papa section. “Morgen specialises in financial irregularities and the black market. He pokes and pries and if he can’t find any angle to proceed, he goes for something else. As long as he can pin something on one, he’s happy.”
“Like the murder?”
“Like the murder. If he doesn’t find anything out of the ordinary at Papa...” The Old Man nodded slightly at me, and I knew that meant that he’d see to it that Morgen wouldn’t. “...Then he’ll go after the murder and see if he can use it as a wedge to investigate everything. So do you understand now why I need you to wrap up the investigation before the end of the week – and why I don’t want anyone from outside handling this?”
“Um, yes, Herr Commandant. Where do I start?”
“Anywhere you want. As far as I’m concerned you’ve got carte blanche. If anybody in the camp questions your authority just refer them to me.”
“Uh, all right, sir. What should I do if I do find the culprit?” Or if I don’t, I wanted to ask.
“Come and tell me, of course, with the evidence. Just make sure you catch the killer before Dr Morgen gets here, that’s all. And, Stadlbauer?”
“I want a watertight case. Don’t just blame it on the first convenient man. I want something so convincing that it won’t give Morgen a chance to use it as a lever to pry our affairs open. Got it?”
“Yes, Herr Commandant.”
He nodded. “Get out of here and get down to it, then.”
I saluted and got out of there and down to it.
“Well, hello there, Untersturmführer Stadlbauer.” Dr Hans-Joachim Müller brushed away an invisible piece of lint from his white coat and smiled blandly. As the senior doctor at Altkirche, he had no liking for mere junior officers like me. He was, by rank, only an Untersturmführer as well, but had influence out of all proportion to the rank badge on his uniform collar. “What brings you here? Not ill, are you?”
“No, I’m fine, Herr Doktor. I’m here to ask about the killing last night.”
“Which killing? Let’s see, we had five Jews die on us during the night, the usual cause, starvation and disease, but of course I just wrote ‘heart attack’ on the certificates.” He looked at me mockingly. As though the deaths of five miserable Jews mattered to him; I’d heard the tales about his medical experiments. Even for the most hardened guards, the details were nauseating. “You know the drill. After that there was a Gypsy who had an accident this morning at the quarry. Well, at least the Kapo and guards said it was an accident, but –“
“I’m sure the details are fascinating, Herr Doktor, but I’ll listen to them some other time. At the moment I mean the killing of the guard, SS Sturmmann Anton Friedrich. You know who I’m talking about.”
Müller’s small eyes flashed pure hate at me. “Yes, don’t I? Somebody did him in, and very nicely too.” He reached into a drawer and dropped something on to the table with a clatter. “Lovely little homemade knife, quite untraceable.”
I picked up the object. It was a triangle of steel, as might be left over from any bit of metalwork. From halfway down the length, the edges and tip had been sharpened, while the back –large enough to fit a palm – had been smoothened down a little. The whole thing was just about large enough to hide in a hand.
“Could a little thing like this kill?” I asked, feeling foolish.
“Quite easily,” Müller said. He looked gratified that he knew more than me on the subject. “You’ve got to know where to cut, of course, and the perpetrator here did. Between the ribs and right into the heart.”
“It wouldn’t take much strength, I suppose?”
“Not at all. Just about as much force as a hard slap would do it.”
“Could you tell me when he was killed, even roughly?”
“Not very.” Müller rubbed his balding head. “You know how hot it’s been these last few nights? That makes it difficult to judge, and then there’s cadaveric spasm.”
“Yes, your man was found clutching his gun so tightly we had to break his fingers to get it off him.”
“Oh? That’s interesting. Is it common?”
“Not too unusual, though we certainly don’t see it every day.” Müller frowned slightly. “Anyway, all I can say was that he was killed somewhere between midnight and five in the morning. I’m told he was found about half past the hour.”
“Who found him?”
“One of the other guards. Doubtless you can find out without any problem. Does that help in any way?”
“Well, Herr Doktor, I’m just gathering information. Could I have a look at the body?”
“You really think that’s a good idea?” Without waiting for an answer, Müller turned and walked towards the back door of his office, the one I knew led to the morgue. He stopped and glared over his shoulder. “Are you coming or aren’t you?”
A minute later I stood looking down at what was left of Hübscher Toni. I hadn’t known Anton Friedrich particularly well, but I’d be bound to admit he didn’t look too handsome now. His face was frozen in a look of shock, the lips pulled back from the teeth, the eyes still half-open. A little blood had crusted on his narrow pale chest.
Dr Müller pointed to the wound. “Can you see it? Just a slit, but more than enough. It wouldn’t have required much in the way of force, either.”
I nodded. “Anything else unusual about him?”
“He wasn’t a closet Jew, if that’s what you mean. He wasn’t circumcised or anything. Nor did he have any disease I noticed, or any special scars. Is that what you mean?”
I shrugged. “At the moment I don’t know what I mean, Herr Doktor.” We were back in the front office, and I picked up the steel triangle from the desk. “May I keep this with me?”
“Sure,” Müller said. “Just be careful while you’re murdering your next victim with it.”
“That wasn’t funny, Herr Doktor.”
“It wasn’t meant to be,” Müller said.
“Yes, I found him.” Hauptscharführer Hube had a face like a block of stone. Under his heavy brows his eyes were sunk so deep that he seemed to be peering out of twin caves. “I was making the dawn rounds.”
“You’re in charge of the sentries?” Hube was one of the seniormost NCOs in the camp, and had been in the SS since the early thirties. I’d no idea why he’d never been promoted to officer rank. Maybe he preferred it where he was – authority, but not much responsibility.
“I am, Herr Untersturmführer.” His upper lip rose slightly in contempt as he mentioned my rank, letting me know that he could’ve had it if he chose, and more. “I make the rounds at dusk and dawn, set the rotas, all of it.”
“Dawn was at what, just after four in the morning? You go over the whole camp?”
“All of this section. I’m not responsible for the women’s camp and the Russkies, of course.”
“No, of course not.” The two sub-camps had their own administrative set-ups and were only nominally under the Old Man’s command. “Still, it must take you a while.”
“An hour and a half, at least. It’s a big camp.”
“You make the rounds alone?”
Hube blinked. “We’re short enough of manpower already, Herr Untersturmführer. I don’t have men to spare to accompany me on work I’m perfectly capable of handling myself.”
I believed it. Hube was one of the biggest men I’ve ever met. Obergruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner had once come on a tour of inspection and I’d wished I could’ve seen them standing together so I could decide who was larger. Hube, probably, though not by much. “What time did you start your rounds?”
“Four in the morning, as always.”
“And you got to Papa at about half past five? That would mean you left it till last.”
“Thereabouts. Yes, in the dawn rounds I always leave it till last. Papa’s locked at night and there’s no reason to give it priority. Besides, it’s on the far side of the camp from the guardhouse and it’s convenient to leave it till last.”
“I see. And when you got there, you saw him at once?”
“No.” Hube shook his head, ever so slightly. “You know that Papa’s this huge shed, don’t you? There’s a two-metre gap round the back between it and the boundary wall. He was round the back, lying on his side.”
“You knew at once he was dead?”
“My men don’t go off to sleep or lie around drunk on duty, Herr Untersturmführer. I knew he was dead all right.” Hube stared at me. “You want me to take you and show you the place?”
“Maybe. Probably. You checked him to make sure, of course?”
Hube’s contempt was like a fog in the air around us. “Of course. He was dead as a doornail. When I tried to turn him on his back, he was stiff.” He sneered again. “I went to the nearest watchtower and had the sentry telephone the guardhouse. Then I went back to the body and waited till the men arrived. We carried him to the hospital on a stretcher.”
“You didn’t see the knife then?”
“I could barely see the blood. There wasn’t much. Once I saw it on his tunic I found the back of the knife sticking out a little. I didn’t touch it.”
“Was Friedrich at his assigned guard post? I mean, was he supposed to be guarding Papa?”
“We don’t have a full-time sentry on Papa when it’s locked. We don’t have enough men to spare for that.” Hube pointed at a chart on the guardhouse wall. “You can see there that last night he was on night patrol in the camp. His duty hours were twelve to six.”
“On night patrol he could go anywhere?”
“Anywhere within the compound of the main camp,” Hube said. “He wasn’t allowed through any of the gates. Night patrol basically means making rounds of the camp and making sure everything’s as it’s meant to be.”
“What other duties did he have beside night patrol?”
“He was on the night rota only since the start of the week. Before that he was guarding the work gangs outside and I put him on the watchtowers when he wasn’t due to go out with them.”
“He wasn’t ever posted to Papa?”
“Not that I recall, Herr Untersturmführer.” Hube took off his cap and rubbed his head. “I can check if you want, but I’m pretty certain I never assigned him to that duty.”
“Yes, I’d appreciate it if you did check.” I tried to decide what to ask next. This sort of work was unfamiliar to me, and I was feeling my way. “This Friedrich. What was he like? I mean, what did the men think of him?”
Hube laughed shortly and without humour. “You know the prisoners called him Handsome Toni? They don’t give out names like that to people they actually like.” He shook his head. “You know, Herr Untersturmführer, as far as I’m concerned this is a job. These Jews, Gypsies and the leftist scum we have here, they’re enemies of the Reich, sure, and they deserve to be locked up, for the good of the nation and people. We all know that. But I’ve always felt that there’s no reason to just be cruel for the sake of being cruel. You know what Friedrich used to do?”
“No, I forgot that you’re an administrator. You don’t get your hands dirty with handling the prisoners. Well, I won’t sicken you with the details, just tell you that our little Anton made himself known to everybody. That’s basically why I took him off the work gang duty roster. Even the Baltic guards – the bloody Latvians – were sickened by him, and you know what they’re like. And all in such a short time.”
“He wasn’t here long, then?”
“Just a month and a half since he got here. No prior camp experience either – he was in the Waffen SS until he got hurt in Russia and was transferred to the camps.”
“Um.” I suppressed the urge to scratch my head. “Who do you think killed him? A prisoner?”
Hube’s face became, if possible, even more stone-like than before. “I don’t know and I don’t want to guess. But the prisoner barracks are all locked at sundown, and I check up myself during the evening rounds that they’re secured.”
I looked at him and he stared back impassively. There were questions I wanted to ask, but I couldn’t find the right words and I couldn’t risk alienating him completely.
“Let’s go and visit Papa,” I said.
Papa towers over the south-western perimeter of the main camp at Altkirche, a hump of corrugated iron sheeting which looks more like a factory shed than most factory sheds. It’s a kind of factory, actually, which works on an industrial scale sorting the prisoners’ belongings and separating valuables from the trash.
It’s amazing what the prisoners will bring with them, especially the Jews, who’ve been evicted from their homes with all they can carry. Some of it’s merely pathetic – baby shoes long since outgrown, primary school certificates, wedding photographs, letters from old lovers and the like. Some of it’s usable but not particularly valuable, like the clothes they have in their suitcases and on their backs, which they give up in return for their grey camp uniforms. And then there’s the actually valuable stuff – money, in twenty different currencies, jewellery, stock certificates, gold spectacle frames, and even such stuff as canned food. That’s the real purpose of Papa – to get the valuables, and to send them back to the Reich Economics Office. Of course, not all of it does go back.
In fact, a considerable proportion doesn’t go back. A great deal goes into the camp’s thriving black market – which doesn’t officially exist, though everyone knows about it and I’ll bet almost everyone uses it. It’s all very lucrative, and it’s necessary. It’s the grease that keeps the camp going, from the guards to the auxiliaries and even the Kapos and prisoners.
Of course it’s all as illegal as hell, and normally, as good obedient servants of the Reich we wouldn’t have had anything to do with things like this. But we all know well enough that the things we send back don’t go into the war effort or to give back to the people what the Jews and Communists have stolen from them – it’s all appropriated by our leadership, and nobody knows what happens to it afterwards. These top officers won’t ever actually have anything to do with the camps directly – they’ll sit back, issue verbal orders, make us do the dirty work, and siphon off the profit. If we do lose the war, and in the last year that’s looking more and more likely, they’ll claim they didn’t know what was going on, and wash their hands off the whole business.
That’s why nobody feels any guilt over the black market. We’re just taking what should be ours anyway. And that, too, is the reason Bloodhound Morgen and his team exist. They don’t really care about killings – what does it matter if a lot of miserable, worthless Jews or Slavs are exterminated? They’re our racial enemies anyway. But their money and their possessions – that’s a different matter entirely. When it comes to that, suddenly everything becomes very important.
And this was also the reason why the Old Man chose me to investigate. Not because I was the Rapportführer or because I was specially suited for the task, but because I was as deep in the Papa rackets as he was, and besides being further down the chain of command I had to dirty my hands far more with the actual transactions. If someone was going to be sacrificed, the Old Man would throw me to the wolves, without hesitation. I suddenly realised, with a chill, that I was fighting, quite literally, for my life.
This was a new sensation. This was the first time ever I’d had to do anything like this. I understood also that it would, almost certainly, not be the last.
By the time Hube and I got to Papa, the day’s work was well in progress. We didn’t go in right then, Hube leading me past the entrance and round to the back. Here the high red brick wall of the camp perimeter was topped by rolls of barbed wire, and the shadow lay deep in the space between.
“He was there, just about,” Hube said, pointing. “If I hadn’t come round the back I wouldn’t have seen him at all.”
I resisted the urge to ask whether it was routine for him to come round back. I’d already experienced his sarcasm and knew well enough he wasn’t the sort to cut corners. “Was he closer to the wall or to the shed?”
“Lying almost against the wall,” Hube replied. “His back was to the wall and he was facing the shed.”
Crouching where he’d indicated, I looked up at the wall and at the bulk of Papa. There were a couple of small ventilation openings in the shed, fairly high. I could just see a watchtower to the right, only the top of the roof. From the tower itself the back of Papa was a blind spot.
“That’s the tower I went to, after I found the body,” Hube said without prompting. “From up there, one can’t see in here at all. I went up earlier this morning to make sure.”
“You did? Why?”
Hube shrugged. “I don’t like one of my men being killed, even if it was a sadistic little sod like Friedrich. Anyway, nobody could’ve seen him from there, even with the searchlights.”
“The gate to the women’s sub-camp is along this way, isn’t it?”
“Yes, on the other side of the tower. The women’s camp’s right across the wall, you know. But the gate was guarded, the sentries didn’t see anything, and you can’t see in here from the gate either.”
“All right, Hauptscharführer. Thank you. I’ll talk to you later if I may.”
“Yes, sir,” he said, his sneer lifting his lip. “Always glad to help you.” He waited until I’d turned away. “There was one odd thing.”
I turned back to him again. “What?”
“The guards have torches with them, to look in the dark corners. You’d have thought he’d have been using it in this narrow dark path, wouldn’t you? But he wasn’t. It was still hanging at his belt.”
I shrugged. “Maybe the batteries were dead or something.”
“No, they weren’t. I checked.”
We stared at each other a moment. “That’s odd,” I said. “I can’t think of what it might mean, though.”
“I’m just informing you... Herr Untersturmführer.” He snapped off a salute and stalked away.
After he left I went into Papa. There was a guard at the door, a Latvian who made as if to stop me and then thought better of it. I paused to talk to him anyway.
“Your name, Schütze?”
“Freimanis, Herr Untersturmführer.” He looked at me warily. His fleshy Baltic face was sweating in the heat. “Freimanis, Alberts.”
“Ah. How long have you been in this camp, Schütze Freimanis?” I’ve never liked the idea of recruiting Balts in the SS. They hate the Jews even more than we do, but that’s about it. Nobody believes they’re our friends otherwise. “Do you like it here?”
Freimanis was sweating even more heavily. “It is good, I like it.” His German was heavily accented, and halting, but I had a suspicion he was exaggerating his ineptness with the language. “It belongs to us to work hard and we do it.”
“Good. Are things busy inside Papa?”
His eyes turned quickly towards the door behind him. “We have not had transport incoming for week, Herr Untersturmführer. Not busy too much, so.”
“All right. When did you come on duty this morning?”
“So you weren’t here when the murder was discovered?”
He paused, thinking. I couldn’t decide whether it was because he didn’t understand what I said or if he were trying to prepare his answer. “No, I came after. Soldiers were still there, but I not know anything about finding body.”
“And when did work start? Seven as usual?”
“Yes, Herr Untersturmführer.”
“All right then.” I nodded to him and walked in, leaving him staring after me. There was still an expression of alarm on his plump face.
Although Papa was inside the main camp, many of the workers here were females from the women’s sub-camp. I’d heard the Old Man say often enough that Papa was wrongly sited. It should’ve been kept close to the main entrance, so that the prisoners’ belongings could’ve been put right there instead of being carted all through the camp. Also, it was too small for the job; but then the entire camp had never been intended to handle as many inmates as this. That’s why the two sub-camps had to be made, and still it wasn’t enough.
Inside, Papa was separated by wooden partitions into several long bays. As the Latvian had said, things weren’t that busy, and only a handful of prisoners were currently at work. After a transport had arrived, there likely wouldn’t be space to stand.
A couple of Aufseherinnen were standing over a gaggle of female prisoners at the end of one of the bays. I recognised one of them, the one carrying a whip, whom the prisoners called the Angel of Death. She saw me and snapped to attention. The prisoners followed suit so quickly that a couple of bundles fell over.
“Where’s Kramer?” I asked. “I need to meet him.” Kramer was the officer in charge of Papa.
“Untersturmführer Kramer is in his office, Herr Untersturmführer.” The Angel of Death pointed with her whip. This was the first time I’d been close enough to have a good look at her; a pale girl of medium height, with a triangular face and icy blue eyes, she didn’t look like someone who could inspire terror even in the male SS guards. Then she turned her head and looked at her charges.
“What are you looking at?” she asked. “Get back to work.”
I glanced at the prisoners, who dived back to the bundles of clothes they were sorting. For inmates, they looked fairly good. None of them had skin stretched over the bones of their faces, and their movements weren’t languid with starvation. Papa’s considered among the best places in the camp to work, because tiny things like rings can be smuggled out and exchanged for food and other things on the camp’s black market. But they’re still prisoners, and have even more to lose than the others do.
“They’re lazy,” the Angel said to me, as if I’d asked for an apology. “I’ll make sure they work to make up for it, Herr Untersturmführer.”
Saying something would only make things worse for the prisoners, the closest of whom was visibly trembling, so I just nodded and went to find Kramer.
His office was a tiny plywood cubicle near the back of the big shed. He looked up from a pile of ledgers when I came in, frowning in annoyance. “Who...oh, it’s you. What do you want?”
I took a moment to look at him before answering. Kramer looked more like an accountant than anyone else I’ve ever met. With his thin frame with a little potbelly, his rimless spectacles and his tiny moustache, I’ve often wondered how he’d ever managed to get into the SS at all. But then a place like Papa needs bookkeepers, and Kramer was perfect in that role; or so I’d been told.
“Commandant’s orders,” I said. “I’m conducting an investigation, and you’re to help.”
He frowned and took off his rimless spectacles. “What investigation?”
“The guard who was killed last night.”
Kramer sat back with palpable relief. “Ach, that one. I don’t know anything about that.”
“Didn’t say you did. I just want the background information – you know, because the murder happened just behind you.” I pointed at the wall behind his head, and he actually flinched slightly. “Did you know the guard?”
“Only by sight, but then I know all of them by sight – even the Latvians.” Kramer put his spectacles back on. “Not that he was ever posted here, so I didn’t know him to talk to.”
“You weren’t here when he was found, were you?”
Was there a moment of hesitation? I couldn’t be sure. “No,” he said. “By the time I got here he’d been taken away. I only heard about it later.”
“You closed down and went back to your quarters at the usual time last evening?”
“Of course I did. What are you getting at?”
“Nothing at all. Just trying to understand what happened. You shut at what time in the evening – seven?”
“That’s right. I’m always the one to leave last, too.” He stared as though daring me to make something of that. “I didn’t see anything out of the usual then, either. But then I wasn’t looking for anything out of the usual.”
“Naturally not. You haven’t had any, uh, special cargo in the last day or two, did you?”
He peered at me with undisguised suspicion. “Look here, Stadlbauer, I have work to do even if you don’t. You know perfectly well we haven’t had a transport in a week. What special cargo would we have?”
“None, I guess.” I sighed. “No disputes among the guards here at Papa? Quarrels or anything?”
“If there was, it wasn’t brought to my attention.” He fidgeted with his books. “It would have been, if it was serious.”
“Yes, of course. Well, sorry for disturbing you. I might be back if I have anything to ask later.”
He didn’t even bother replying. He’d gone back to his pile of ledgers when I left the tiny room.
The workshops at Altkirche were situated in a separate enclosure outside the main camp, surrounded by barbed wire fences and ditches filled with stagnant water. As I left the gate, a work party was entering. They were carrying picks and shovels over their shoulders and their prison uniforms were stained with mud.
No need to ask what work they’d been doing – it was the burial party. Altkirche isn’t an extermination camp and has no crematoria. But the Jews don’t stop dying just because of that, of course, and they have to be got rid of somehow. Fortunately, the woods outside offer plenty of space for graves, just as they do for executions on the quiet. There must be tens of thousands of corpses there already. If we ever have to retreat from here, I wonder just how we’re supposed to eradicate the traces so the Russians don’t find them. I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about that – I’ve heard Müller talking about the effects of quicklime.
I stood aside for the burial gang to enter. This particular lot looked all in, as though they were ready for the grave themselves. It was likely they were – the burial parties were usually liquidated every few weeks, and new ones recruited from the prisoners. The guards with them – four of them, to prevent escapes – were led by a Rottenführer I’d seen around before, though I couldn’t remember his name at the moment. As the party entered through the gates, one of the men dropped his shovel with a loud clang and it bounced on to the Rottenführer’s boots. He whirled on the Jew.
“Filthy bastard,” he yelled. “Pick that thing up at once.” The man shambled forward and lurched, almost falling to his knees. This infuriated the Rottenführer even more. I thought he was going to shoot the prisoner, but he had other plans.
“Beat the swine,” he snapped. It was then that I noticed the Kapo, who had been walking to one side. He was a short, broad figure, obviously much better fed and stronger than the rest. He held a pickaxe handle in his hands. “Beat him!”
Nodding, the Kapo stepped forward. His first blow of the handle was across the inmate’s knees, and he went down at once. The second blow was across his shoulders and sent him sprawling on the ground. The Kapo raised the handle for the third time, obviously about to bring it down on the man’s head.
“That’s enough,” I said. “Stop.”
The Kapo looked up at me with muddy, bloodshot eyes. He was panting eagerly and I realised he’d really wanted to kill the prisoner. “Stop,” I repeated. “Right now.”
The Rottenführer was staring at me incredulously. “Who the hell...” he began, then saw my collar badges, recognised me, and snapped to attention. “Herr Untersturmführer.”
“Why are you having this man beaten?” I asked. The guards at the gate had been watching the scene with some enjoyment, but as soon as I’d spoken they turned and assumed their positions, rigidly facing the forest. “He didn’t deserve it.”
“He dropped valuable equipment,” the Rottenführer said. “It might have been damaged. A spade’s worth more than a damned Jew.”
“He also dirtied your boot,” I said. “But you can polish it, can’t you? And the shovel doesn’t seem damaged to me.” I prodded it with my toe. “Not even a little bit.”
The Rottenführer didn’t reply. He was literally trembling with fury.
“All right,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Hingst, Herr Untersturmführer.”
“Well, then, Rottenführer Hingst, have your men help this man up and get him some medical attention. Also, one more thing. As of tomorrow, he’s off burial detail. Have him report to me, I’ll find a job for him.”
Hingst’s face was white with fury, but he had no choice in the matter. “Jawohl, Herr Untersturmführer.”
I nodded and walked past the burial party, managing not to brush the Kapo as I squeezed past him. The last I saw, the other inmates were helping the beaten man up.
The workshops were housed in a compound of their own, within sight of the main gate, and surrounded by barbed wire strung on metal posts. It was another of the effects of the overcrowding of Altkirche that there was no space for them within the main camp. But there’s nothing to be done about it unless we’re willing to demolish it all and rebuild from the ground up.
The guard at the main entrance looked as if he’d love to turn me away on some pretext. I don’t know what makes some of the men dislike me so much. After all, it’s not as though I’ve ever done anything to them. But then a lot of them are veterans of the war in Russia and I outrank them despite never having seen combat. “Good morning,” I told him anyway.
“Good morning, Herr Untersturmführer.” He stepped back and pulled the sliding gate open. I looked around and went to the nearest shed.
It was filled with cacophony. Prisoners were rushing about, operating lathes, stamping metal, dragging rattling wheelbarrows across the floor of planks laid on the ground. Showers of sparks came from corners. A couple of Kapos hovered around anxiously, keeping a wary eye on the guards.
One of them rushed over to me immediately. “Can I help you, Herr Untersturmführer?”
“No, I’m just here inspecting. You can carry on as usual.”
He stepped back, but I noticed him watching me. Not that I’d expected he’d take me at my word. Officers didn’t often come to the workshops without specific cause.
I saw the man I wanted almost immediately, over by the far corner, but of course I didn’t go to him directly. Instead, I went around the workbenches, stopping briefly to talk to some of the inmates. I hardly bothered to listen to their answers, because of course I knew what they’d be. They were happy working in here, they were well treated, they’d no complaints. And it might even have been not too far from the truth, because the men in here were far better off than the wretches in the burial party, for example. And as long as they were working here, they were considered valuable to the war effort and likely wouldn’t be taken to the forest and shot.
Finally I worked my way round till I was next to the man I’d come to meet. “Come and see me this evening after Appel,” I said. “Usual place.”
Benjamin Blatt nodded, just enough so I could see it. He was a Polish Jew, an engineer by training, and a Communist on top of everything else, so triply despicable in the Reich’s eyes. However, he and I had long ago forged a working relationship. He was extremely intelligent and had frequently proved useful in the past, as my eyes and ears among the inmates. In return, I looked out for him and made sure he stayed safe.
He glanced at me under his brows. “What’s this about, Herr Untersturmführer?”
“Later,” I said. “The damned Kapo is watching. He’s probably looking for a chance to prove to me how severe he can be with the prisoners.” With a carefully casual nod, I worked my way back towards the entrance. The Kapo followed anxiously, not exactly at my heels but not too far away.
Before entering the camp, I paused a moment to look at it. From outside, it didn’t really look like much, except for the strands of wire atop the walls and the watchtowers at the corners. The sloping roofs of the barracks, peeking over the wall, looked almost hospitable. I wasn’t looking at that, though - I was trying to see if there was any way someone might have got over the wall. It isn’t that high, not like some of the bigger camps. But there didn’t seem to be – and, besides, the watchtowers could see the tops of the walls, all around. Even if someone had managed to get across without being noticed, he’d either have to have cut the wire or thrown something over it and crawled over, both of which would’ve left traces. And as for the main gate, it was shut at night and stayed shut without written orders to the contrary – orders from the Old Man or from his Rapportführer. In other words, from me.
No, it wasn’t someone from outside who’d done the killing. Not that I’d expected it would be. The killer was one of the main camp. But who, among all the guards and inmates and officers, could have done it?
I sighed. Most of one day gone, and I was no closer to the answer. I was also beginning to develop a headache.
I decided to go and write the Old Man’s report about yesterday’s supply trip. It was drudgery, but it would take my mind off things for a while.
As I passed through the gate, I threw a glance over my shoulder. Far away, over the access road through the forest, a column of dark cloud was forming. It looked threatening, like a mace raised high in a giant’s fist.
It reminded me uneasily of Dr Morgen.
“You didn’t really have to stick your neck out to try and impress me, Herr Untersturmführer.”
I blinked. “What on earth are you talking about?”
Benjamin Blatt pushed his cap back on his forehead and grinned, showing stained teeth. “That little thing at the gate today – stopped old Zylberstein from being beaten to death, didn’t you?”
It was that evening, just after roll call, and by rights Blatt should’ve been lining up for his watery soup and piece of bread right now. Instead, he was standing with me in a niche of the wall behind the line of barracks, safe from observation. We’d discovered it a long time ago and used it for most of our meetings.
“You know about that already?” I asked, surprised.
Blatt snorted. “Of course I know about it – you underestimate the grapevine in this camp, Herr Untersturmführer. I’d heard something about it by the time you’d turned up at my bench in the workshop. Why did you do it?”
I shook my head, baffled. “I don’t know, really. It’s not the first time I’ve seen these beatings, but I didn’t interfere before. Maybe it was because I was so close to it – and of course he...what was his name, Zylberstein? He hadn’t done anything to deserve it. Or maybe it’s just that I didn’t like the Rottenführer’s face.”
“It didn’t get you any friends, I can tell you. The inmates are terrified they’ll be punished on some trumped-up excuse by way of retaliation, and the guards hate you.” He shrugged. “Of course they hate you anyway, but you know that well enough.”
“Yes. Doesn’t matter at the moment.” I fished in my tunic and drew out a package wrapped in newspaper. “Here you go. Eat it quickly.”
I turned my back while he wolfed down the black bread and sausage. I try to make allowances for these Jews – that they hardly ever get anything I’d consider remotely edible, and then they have to eat it quickly and secretly – but the sight never fails to fill me with disgust. A German in a similar situation, I’m convinced, would never have eaten with such disgusting voracity. At the same time, I’m glad I don’t have to find out.
“Thanks, Herr Untersturmführer. Now what did you want to see me about?”
“There was a killing in camp last night. You know about that, naturally.”
“I assume you mean Handsome Toni? Sure, I know about it. What about him?”
“What do the inmates think about it?”
“Well, nobody’s shedding any tears over him. I take it you’ve heard what he was like? But of course everyone knows he’ll be replaced, and the replacement isn’t likely to be any better.” Blatt peered at me through the growing shadows. “Why do you ask, Herr Untersturmführer?”
“He was killed with this.” I took out the triangle of metal and held it up. “Isn’t this the kind of thing you can make in the workshop?”
He took it from me and examined it. “Well, yes, but you can also just pick up an old piece of scrap iron and file it like this. I mean, it doesn’t really need the workshop. Anyone could do it. Why, do you suppose one of the inmates killed the sadistic little sod?”
“Could they have? The Hauptscharführer, Hube, he said it’s impossible because the barracks are secured at night.”
Blatt handed the knife back. “I know old Hube. No offence, Herr Untersturmführer, but Hube sees what he wants to see. He can’t acknowledge to himself that there are things he doesn’t know about and can’t control.”
“You mean the inmates can get out?”
“Where there’s a resistance network, there’s always a way, for those who are part of that network.”
“What network would that be?” I asked, though it was just a formality.
“Come now, Herr Untersturmführer. You know as well as I do that in some camps there’s a resistance movement. Now of course I’m not saying there’s one in this camp. But suppose one did exist, I might say it’s biding its time at the moment, until the front moves closer. After all, we both know the Russians are coming.” Blatt shook his head. “No use asking me who’s part of the network. If there were one, I’d not be part of it and it would be safer for me not to know.”
“And they’re gathering weapons, I’ll be bound?”
Blatt stared at me expressionlessly. “Who is gathering weapons? I don’t understand.”
I snorted. “What I want you to do is try and find out if anyone from the inmates knows anything about this killing – anything at all. Like if someone sneaked out at night and saw something, or if someone decided to take the law into his own hands. After all, as you said, our Anton Friedrich hadn’t exactly made himself popular with the prisoners.”
“You realise that it may not be possible for me to name names.”
“Yes, if they’re part of this...network...which of course doesn’t exist. But if you do find anything out, let me know.”
“Yes, Herr Untersturmführer. We’ll meet here tomorrow?” He glanced up at the sky. “I’d better get indoors before someone notices I’m missing.”
“Till tomorrow,” I said.
“Yes, and... Herr Untersturmführer?”
“Thanks for saving Zylberstein. He’s...well, he’s rather a nice man, once you get to know him.”
I stared after his retreating back, baffled. I could almost have thought I heard a sob in Blatt’s voice. But that was really too ridiculous for words.
Shrugging, I turned to get back to my quarters. I had more than enough troubles of my own.
After dinner, I sat up for hours, thinking hard and not getting anywhere at all.
“You don’t look too good,” the Old Man said. “Didn’t you sleep well last night?”
“Not that well. Any news of Morgen, Herr Commandant?”
“No more than what I told you yesterday. But that doesn’t mean anything. You know that in Buchenwald he was camped in town for months, spying the territory before he finally made his move against Koch?”
“You mean he might be here already.”
“Or, more likely, his spies will be. So you’d better get a move on.”
I sighed with frustration. “Can I have a look at Friedrich’s personnel records? His paybook and so on? Maybe he had some enmity with someone and it caught up with him.”
“Well, of course you can have a look, but what makes you think you’ll find evidence of personal enmity in a paybook?”
“I don’t know, Herr Commandant. I just can’t think of anything else to go on at the moment.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll think of something. And, Stadlbauer?”
“I’ve hearing about what happened at the gate yesterday. Specifically, I’ve been told that you exceeded your authority in stopping a prisoner from being punished.”
“He hadn’t done anything meriting punishment, and the orders to punish him were clearly illegal.”
The Old Man raised a sardonic eyebrow. “Remember that we’re all supposed to be hard as granite in the Totenkopf,” he said, pointing to the death’s head badge on my cap. “No softness to be shown towards the Jews, isn’t that the order?”
“But,” I argued, “Morgen’s launched prosecutions for illegal killing of Jews too, hasn’t he? So for the moment it’s better if we aren’t too hard for a change.”
The Old Man laughed. “I had a representation from Rottenführer Hingst this morning, saying that his authority over the men had been undermined by you. I reminded him that he was supposed to obey his superior officer without complaint or hesitation, and sent him away. But he’s right, you know. We have to show a united front, or these Jews and Bolsheviks will exploit the cracks. You know well enough how devious they are.”
“I won’t do it again.”
The Old Man nodded. “Wunsch in the front office has Friedrich’s papers ready for you,” he said, and reached for a pile of files. I knew I was dismissed.
Someone was waiting for me outside my little office. I blinked in confusion, and then I recognised him. It was Zylberstein, whom the Kapo had been trying to beat to death. He shambled forward and saluted clumsily, cap in hand.
“You asked to see me, Herr Untersturmführer.”
“Yes, er... what’s your number?”
“One eight five zero, Herr Untersturmführer.” The man, I realised, was younger than I’d first thought, maybe around forty. It was only starvation and overwork which made him look like a walking corpse.
“How are you feeling? Is the pain still very bad?”
He shrugged, his neck vanishing and appearing from the shirt of his uniform like a turtle from its shell. “I am used to pain.”
“Well, come in and sit down.”
Gingerly, as though he wasn’t quite sure what the purpose of the chair was, he sat.
“I’ll be reassigning you to an indoor job,” I said. “Can you do carpentry, or cook, or anything like that?”
“Cook,” he said. His eyes sparked briefly. “I can cook. I worked as a chef in a hotel, once. But I was sacked for being a Jew.”
“Fine, so you’ll be a cook again. I’ll make out orders transferring you to the camp kitchen with immediate effect.”
“Thank you, Herr Untersturmführer.” Suddenly, he began to cry. “Thank you for yesterday too. I was sure they were going to kill me, and I’d stopped caring if they did. And now...”
“Stop it!” I snapped, embarrassed. “Stop that crying, damn it.” While he was still sniffling, I wrote out the transfer order and signed it. “Hey, one eight five zero?”
“Yes, Herr Untersturmführer?”
“That trooper of ours who got killed yesterday, Anton Friedrich. You knew him, of course?”
The Jew shivered and tried to suppress it. “Yes, we all knew him.”
“Well, I’m trying to get to the bottom of the affair of his murder. I suppose he got along well enough with the other guards?”
“He?” Zylberstein leaned across the small desk towards me. “Not he. He didn’t get along with anyone.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, sir, he was with us on the work gangs, and the other guards couldn’t stand him either. They hardly ever even talked to him. And I remember that one time...”
“What? You can speak freely, don’t worry.”
“We were digging drainage ditches at the time, outside the western wall.” He shuddered at the memory, and I almost shuddered with him. Drainage ditch digging was one of the worst, most back-breaking jobs at Altkirche, and probably killed more inmates than all the rest of the jobs put together. “Rottenführer Hingst was with us too – that’s the one who you saved me from last night.”
I nodded. “I know his name. Go on.”
“Handsome Toni and he almost came to blows. I don’t know what it was about, but it involved money. They were glaring at each other and we thought they were about to fight.”
“Ah. And what were you all doing?”
Zylberstein’s thin lips twitched in a smile. “Keeping our heads down and trying not to get noticed. You know what they say, Herr Untersturmführer. When two elephants fight, it’s the grass which gets trampled down.”
“So I’ve heard. When was this?”
“Middle of last week. Thursday, I think. That was the last day Handsome Toni was on the outside guard duty.”
“Interesting,” I said. I held out the transfer order. “Take this and get to the kitchen. You can start work right away.”
“Thank you, Herr Untersturmführer.” He was tearing up again. “Thank you very much.”
“Go on, get out of here,” I said. “I have work to do and so have you.”
After he’d gone, I looked through Anton Friedrich’s papers. An account of being shot through the shoulder on the Ukrainian front by a partisan’s bullet, which had ended his combat career, but nothing else out of the ordinary.
But then I’d have been astonished at anything else.
“Nothing,” Blatt said. “I managed to confirm that it is possible to sneak out of the barracks at night – if one has the right connections, of course – but that’s about all there is to it. I couldn’t find anyone who admits to having been out all week, let alone night before last.” He bit into the apple I’d given him, juice dribbling down his chin. “But they wouldn’t, would they?”
“No, I can see that they wouldn’t.”
“And of course I only know about those from my barracks. I can’t answer for those from the others – or the Kapos.”
“The Kapos didn’t like him much. From what I heard, he’d had a charming habit of threatening to demote the Kapos back to ordinary inmates if they weren’t working hard enough to suit him. You know what happens to a Kapo who’s no longer a Kapo and is sent back to the general prison?”
“Yes, I’ve heard.” Those ex-Kapos never survived the night. They were invariably lynched before the morning came round. “Let me ask you something, Blatt. Who do you think killed him?”
“I?” He was either genuinely astonished or simulated it very well. “I don’t know anything about it, Herr Untersturmführer. And it’s healthier not to speculate.”
“I’m not going to give you away, don’t worry. For one thing, you’re far too useful to lose. But do you think he was killed by the resistance movement?”
“I, well...” Blatt hesitated. “I can’t say definitely, of course, Herr Untersturmführer, but I don’t think so. The last thing they’d want to do at this stage is to draw attention to themselves.”
“Yes, that figures,” I said unhappily. “Well, you keep your ears open. By the way, Zylberstein said something about Friedrich fighting with Hingst about money. Do you know anything about that?”
“No, but wouldn’t surprise me. I know Hingst is a gambler – the servants in the NCO accommodation told us about that. As for Friedrich, he was always flying off the handle anyway, so it wouldn’t take much to set him going.”
“You know something, Blatt? The more I find out about this case, the more confused I get, and the less I like the way things are.”
“Welcome to the real world, Herr Untersturmführer. That’s the way things are like for the rest of us, all the time.”
“Halt,” a voice snapped in the darkness. “Who goes there?”
“Untersturmführer Stadlbauer,” I said, superfluously, because a powerful beam of light was stabbing at my face. “Turn that thing off.”
“Your pardon, Herr Untersturmführer.” Whoever it was didn’t sound sorry at all. “You realise I have to check.” The torch beam was turned away a little. “May I ask what you’re doing out here in the camp in the middle of the night?”
“Going for a walk, that’s all. Who are you?”
“Hingst, Herr Untersturmführer. You remember me.”
“Yes. I didn’t know you were on camp night patrol.”
“Oh, I am, sometimes. Not usually, but we’re short-handed at the moment. We don’t have the privileges officers have, sir.”
I could see him now, a silhouette with the torch in one hand and a submachine gun in the other. “Tell me, Hingst, what did you think of Anton Friedrich?”
“Who, Handsome Toni?” There was a brief pause. “I didn’t think anything about him at all.”
“I’m told you had a fight with him over money.”
“Oh, were you?” I could hear the strain in his voice now. Fear, anger, or both? “I can guess who told you that. But you know the damned Jews lie.”
“I didn’t say it was a Jew. Did you have a fight with him or not?”
There was a long pause. “We may have had a little disagreement, yes. It wasn’t anything much. A matter of a gambling debt.”
“Oh? And settled, I presume?”
“He said it would be, that he was expecting money in a couple of days. I suppose it won’t, now, will it?”
I digested that a minute. “Officially, SS members aren’t supposed to gamble, but I suppose that’s a minor sin. Tell me something, Hingst. Were you on duty the night Friedrich was killed?”
“What? No. I was off duty that night.”
“What were you doing, then? Gambling?”
“Hardly, Herr Untersturmführer. I had nothing to gamble with, until Friedrich paid what he owed. I was sleeping.” His voice was mocking. “It had been an exhausting day, making live Jews bury dead Jews. You ought to try it sometime.”
“Well, thank you, Rottenführer,” I said. “Please go on with your patrol.” I walked past him, feeling his eyes on my back.
I hadn’t come out for the walk with a definite object in mind, but as I walked I found my feet carrying me in the direction of Papa. In the darkness, lit only by the reflected glow of the searchlights on the watchtowers, it was like a hill silhouetted against the starlit summer sky. Two nights ago, Anton Friedrich would have been walking along this way, at perhaps this time, and would have seen Papa, too. He’d have walked towards it, and for some reason down the side and the back and...
I stopped suddenly. I was at the back of Papa, where the corpse had been found, the wall to my left and the back of the shed to my right. It should’ve been completely dark here, but wasn’t. There was a very faint light. I looked around. The light was coming from chinks in the back wall of Papa, just where Kramer’s office was.
Someone was in Kramer’s office, then. But nobody should be, not at this time of night. Not according to Kramer. Unless it was Kramer himself, doing overtime. And then I heard something more, a couple of voices. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but one was clearly Kramer’s, and the other...I thought I could recognise the other one too.
I grimaced to myself in the darkness. This damned mess was getting on my nerves. The more I found out, the worse it made me feel.
Trying to stay out of the beams of the roving searchlights, I went back to my room. I didn’t meet anyone on the way.
Nor did I get to sleep during what remained of the night.
“Guten Morgen, Stadlbauer.” The Old Man leaned back in his chair and motioned me to sit. “Any progress?”
“Yes, Herr Commandant.” I put my cap on the desk and rubbed my sleepless eyes. “I believe I can tell you who the killer is, now.”
“You can?” The Old Man stared at me. “Well? Where’s the report?”
“Before I submit a written report, Herr Commandant...” I paused to collect my thoughts. “I’d like to discuss the case verbally with you. Then we can decide what to put in the report.”
“That’s not usual, is it?” The Old Man frowned. “Tell me.”
“When I started out with this investigation,” I said, “I hadn’t the faintest clue who might have killed Anton Friedrich. All I was certain about was that it wasn’t an outsider, and it wasn’t anyone from one of the sub-camps. No, the killer was right here, from the main Altkirche camp.
“Since I had really no clues to go on, I focussed on the dead man’s character. And soon enough it became apparent that he had a positive talent for getting himself disliked by everyone. In fact, it became apparent that from the inmates to the Kapos to his fellow guards, everybody who was in contact with him was a potential suspect.
“Now, there were two distinct reasons to suspect the inmates – apart from the fact that he treated them so brutally. One was the weapon used. It wasn’t a real knife, even a penknife, but the kind of metal piece which can be fashioned into a knife fairly easily – in the workshop near the main gate, for example. But of course it could be obtained elsewhere too. Anyone could even make it for themselves without much trouble.
“Now you know that there have been resistance movements in other camps, which have gathered weapons and then staged a revolt. At first I dismissed the possibility in this instance because the dead man had been found still clutching his submachine gun – if somebody from a resistance movement had killed him, they’d have taken the gun, wouldn’t they?
“But then I discovered, when talking to Dr Müller, that the corpse was found in a state of cadaveric spasm, in which the muscles contract tightly at the moment of death. He had, in fact, been clutching his submachine gun so tightly that his fingers had to be broken to get the gun away from him. So it could simply be that the killers couldn’t take the gun from his hands.”
“You mean there is a resistance movement in the camp?” The Old Man’s eyes blazed. “I’ll have all the barracks searched and the entire lot sent to an extermination camp. I’ll...”
“Why, no, sir. I was just going to explain further. If there had been a resistance movement in the camp, it wouldn’t have been stupid enough to do anything now. You’ll forgive me if I say that we aren’t exactly winning the war at the moment?”
The Old Man grunted.
“In fact, the Eastern Front is falling apart and in a few months the Russians will be knocking at the gates,” I continued. “It’s then that we might have anything to fear from an uprising, not now. Any resistance movement would stay carefully hidden until that time. So I ruled out the resistance movement right away – not that I believe we have any in this camp anyway.
“Nor did I seriously consider the Kapos or the Latvian auxiliaries. The Kapos would do anything to keep their place – it’s literally a matter of life and death to them. But the easy way out is to be harsh to the inmates, not take the extreme risks of attempting a murder; and that, in the middle of the night when no Kapo is supposed to be out and about anyway. As for the Latvians – you’ve seen them. They can hardly even speak German, let along set up complex plots. And I couldn’t see as they had any reason to hate Friedrich. In fact, they were the only people who didn’t.
“And then I came across a very interesting bit of information. You remember Rottenführer Hingst, who was here the other day to complain about me? Well, this Hingst had a public fight – nearly came to actual blows – with Friedrich about a gambling debt. At first I’d assumed that it was Hingst who owed money to Friedrich, but actually it was the other way round. Apparently, Friedrich had promised to pay Hingst back in a day or two, but had died without paying off the debt. And,” I added, “on the night of the murder, Hingst wasn’t on duty. He claims he was sleeping, but of course we only have his word for that.
“So what do we do with Hingst?” I asked. “I suggest you have him transferred to the Eastern Front to a combat outfit. Let him work off his energies killing Ivans instead of having Kapos kill inmates because he’s angry at losing out on a gambling debt. What do you think?”
The Old Man was nodding. “It’s circumstantial evidence,” he said. “But I suppose it will have to do. If he’s out of here before Morgen comes, at least the Bloodhound won’t have anything to go on. And Hingst isn’t likely to last long at the front.” He sighed. “I must congratulate you, Stadlbauer, on catching the murderer. I wish it were a Jew, but we can’t have everything, I suppose.”
“Oh, but, Herr Commandant, it wasn’t Hingst who killed Friedrich.”
“What? But you just said –“
“I never said Hingst killed him, and he didn’t, Herr Commandant.” I paused. “Because you did.”
“What did you say?” The Old Man was half out of his seat. “You dare accuse me of...”
“Will you please listen, sir? Let me tell you what I think, and if I’m talking rubbish, well, you’re at liberty to ignore me.”
I waited till he sat back down. “From the beginning, I’ve been wondering why this case is so important. After all, sometimes killings do happen in units. Everyone knows this, and they don’t usually seem to be of earthshaking importance. And though you told me that Morgen would use the killing as a wedge to pry open what’s going on in Papa, or to punish us for something else in lieu of Papa, I couldn’t really understand why. But at the same time, I didn’t doubt – I still don’t doubt – that you were completely sincere about Morgen. Therefore, there was some reason why the death of Anton Friedrich was important to Dr Morgen.
“And once I decided that, some odd little things fell into place. Like the fact that Friedrich was a relative newcomer to the camp – he had been less than a month and a half here. According to what we’d been told, he’d been injured fighting in Russia and declared unfit for combat; and when I looked through his papers, I saw that he’d been shot through the shoulder. But Dr Müller conducted the post-mortem, and he specifically told me Friedrich hadn’t got any scars. What do you suppose that means, Herr Commandant?”
The Old Man didn’t say anything.
“So, either someone else was impersonating Friedrich, or else Friedrich was here with false papers. Why would someone be here with false papers, and why would such a person be of importance to Dr Morgen?” I paused briefly to see if he’d answer. “I think you answered the question yourself, Herr Commandant, when you mentioned Dr Morgen’s spies. Anton Friedrich was a plant, an agent sent by Dr Morgen to sniff out incriminating information. Only, Morgen blundered.
“He blundered, because far from being a selfless spy, Friedrich was a self-serving piece of slime, who was as greedy as he was violent. He began gambling, lost heavily, and then promised to repay the money in a couple of days. How could he do that, do you think? We’re still only at the middle of the month. Even assuming the payroll arrives when it’s supposed to, payday is still two weeks away!
“There’s only one answer which fits, and fits exactly. Blackmail.
“Who would Friedrich be blackmailing? What could he be blackmailing about? Obviously, the answer is wrapped round his entire reason for being in the camp – Papa.
“Last night, I took a walk around the camp. On the way, I was stopped by a guard; Hingst, as it happened. He shone a torch at me. All the guards carry these torches at night. Friedrich also had one; but it was still at his belt when he was found, and in a completely dark alley at that. Why?
“Because, obviously, he didn’t want to draw any attention.
“While I was working that out, I went into the alley where Friedrich’s body was found, just behind Papa. It wasn’t as dark as I was expecting, because there was light leaking through chinks in the wall. The light was in Kramer’s office – but Kramer normally locks up and leaves in the evening. But I could hear his voice, too, so he was in the office; and not alone. And then I heard another voice. Do you want me to tell you whose it was?”
The Old Man sat as though turned to stone.
“Shall I tell you what happened? Friedrich had discovered the fiddle going on in Papa – a much deeper fiddle than I’m privy to, I’m sure, because the amounts I know about don’t require late night meetings to fix. He then decided a spot of blackmail would get him out of his money hole very nicely, and contacted you.
“At that time, you didn’t know about Morgen, I’m sure, or you would’ve taken care of Friedrich some other way. Instead, you told him that you’d have to talk to your partner Kramer – oh yes, Kramer’s in this as deeply as you are – and then pay him. You made sure he knew that you and Kramer were meeting that night, and the time. I don’t know where you got the knife, but you probably made it yourself. As I said, it’s a simple thing.
“So this is what happened. Knowing that Friedrich would be straining to listen through the wall, you had Kramer talk loudly about the details of some scam or other, something to keep Handsome Toni’s attention riveted. It had to be Kramer who was talking, because it was his office, he would be more conversant with the details, and he was sitting closer to the wall. Besides, Kramer is a weakling and a coward. You’re neither. So, while Kramer talked, you went out, sneaked around the side of the shed, came up to Friedrich as he was listening with his ear pressed to the wall. You grabbed him by the shoulder, swung him round, stabbed him, and was probably walking away before he even hit the ground. How’s that for a reconstruction, Herr Commandant?”
“Go on,” the Old Man said.
“The next morning, you were probably assuming you’d got away with it. That’s why it was such a shock to get the information about Morgen. You called me in desperation, without really thinking about it till it was too late. And now, well...”
I paused, looking at the Old Man, waiting for a response. What I got was a smile – almost an approving grin.
“Excellent,” said the Old Man, “Truly excellent. Your imagination does you proud.”
“I don’t think it was my imagination, Herr Commandant.”
“No? We shall see. Just out of curiosity, what do you intend to do?”
“I?” I asked. “Nothing. Send off Hingst to the front. When Morgen asks about his man, let him assume that Friedrich was killed over the gambling debt. And clean up Papa, if you haven’t already.”
“I suppose you want a bigger share of the proceeds from Papa, though?”
“No, thanks, sir. I don’t want to end up like Friedrich. I’ll tell you what I do want - a transfer away from here. I don’t care where you send me – I’ll gladly accept a transfer to the front and take my chances.”
The Old Man stared at me. “Request denied. You’re far too important here for me to lose. You’ll stay here until I say otherwise.”
“Herr Commandant –“
“Wait. Hear me out.” His eyes glinted like wet pebbles. “Just, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that this fantasy you’ve just outlined had some factual basis. Let’s assume that you were tempted to approach, say, Dr Morgen with your tale. Well, it might be that I have here, in this file, documents proving your sole responsibility for embezzlement of property and funds from Papa. Not that any such file exists, of course, just as no embezzlement has ever actually occurred from Papa. Am I clear?”
“Yes, Herr Commandant.” I swallowed, painfully. “Abundantly so.”
“Good,” he said. “Go and get the papers made out for Hingst’s transfer to the front. And, while you’re doing that, make out a transfer request in Kramer’s name, ready for his signature.”
“Yes, he’s the weak link. I’m getting rid of him instead. Go.”
Nodding, not trusting myself to speak, I went.
Glossary of SS Ranks mentioned in the story:
Obergruppenführer = Lieutenant General
Sturmbannführer = Major
Untersturmführer = Second Lieutenant
Hauptscharführer = Sergeant Major / Master Sergeant
Rottenführer = Corporal
Sturmmann = Lance Corporal
Schütze = Private
Note: All characters in the story except Dr Georg Konrad Morgen (“the Bloodhound Judge”) are fictional, as is the Altkirche Concentration Camp.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013