(This is an enlarged and partly rewritten version of a story
I first wrote in 2009 - the first of the Altkirche stories.)
It was on the day that Ella found the book that everything really began to go to pieces.
Ella was staying at her uncle’s house, the decaying mansion on the road out of the old town, and she hated it there. The house was not just old, it was damp and there were splotches of mould on the walls, and the water was always cold and rusty. The only part of the house that Ella really liked was the library, the room at the top of the house with bookcases from floor to ceiling. It had long windows that let in the sun all day and was warm even when the rest of the old building was freezing cold.
Ella had long come to the conclusion that her parents hadn’t ever wanted her and didn’t even like her at all. It wasn’t a sudden conclusion, but rather one built up over years of coldness and sudden overwhelming bursts of guilt-ridden affection. It was the reason why she spent her holidays from school in the houses of relatives instead of with her parents. Lately, she had begun to wonder if their attitude wasn’t her own fault.
Ella was then in her sixteenth year. Dark-haired and with eyes of the blue of Arctic skies, she had a triangular face and a mouth that tended to turn slightly down at the corners. She wasn’t pretty and she was aware of the fact. At times she consoled herself by saying that she had striking features. She had no friends and not very many acquaintances. She had never had any boyfriends, nor had she seen much of the world outside the environment of school and relatives’ houses. It wasn’t much of a life for a sixteen-year-old.
On that day, the second day of her holiday, Ella had finished breakfast and gone up to the library. Snow lay outside in a thin, powdery layer, but the sky was blue and the sun shone enough to keep the library full of light and relatively warm. Even without heating, it was a cheery room.
Ella had begun reading an old book of ghost stories the night before. When exhaustion had forced her to retire for the night, she had put the heavy old tome down on the table and gone down. This morning, though, the book wasn’t there. Someone had tidied up.
She looked in the shelves, but in the light of day she couldn’t find the spot from which she had taken the book in the lamp-lit evening. Most of the books were thickly bound and looked much alike. She reached out at random and began taking out and leafing through the books. The first one was on dairy farming, complete with photographs of cattle of various breeds. The next one was a textbook on civil engineering. That went back almost instantly. Then, in a corner, almost hidden, her eyes fell on that book.
In later months, Ella could never really explain to herself why she had chosen that book. She re-lived that moment over and over in her thoughts, and never could decide whether it would have been better if she had passed it by.
In any event, she pulled it out, its heavy covers making it difficult to remove from the case, and opened it at random. There was a picture that occupied much of the entire top halves of both pages, a picture that she had come across before, in a history book in school, a picture from the Second World War; Adolf Hitler in a car, arm raised stiffly, taking the salute as a line of soldiers marched by.
Idly, she flipped through a few more pages. The book was in English, a language with which her acquaintance was passing, but lavishly illustrated. More pictures of Hitler, and then someone she recognised as Heinrich Himmler, complete with scarred cheek and pince-nez, pointing at a map. Then she turned a few pages at once and gasped in shock.
She had heard about them, of course: the camps, the crematoria, and the inmates, skeletal walking corpses. She’d heard all about them, but she had never seen any photographs of them before. Horrified and fascinated, she turned page after page, each one of the stark black-and-white images more eloquent than a thousand words in the language she hardly understood. And then she turned yet another page and her heart seemed to stop.
At first glance the photo wasn’t much: a young woman in a grey buttoned-up jacket and grey skirt over long boots, staring back at the camera with a slightly defiant air. In the background was a grey wall with a rough, unfinished look about it. Under her shiny boots, a gravel path was bordered by scrubby grass.
Ella looked at that photo a long time, read the caption below it, and then she closed the book, with her finger in place. Her heart was hammering. After a while she opened the book again, and looked at the picture again.
There was a long mirror at one side of the library, placed so as to make the room look larger and airier. Ella got up and walked over to the mirror, and held the book open, and looked at the photo in the book and then at her own face.
Even making allowances for the age and quality of the grainy black and white photograph, there was no mistake: the face above the grey SS Helferin’s uniform was her own.
“I don’t know,” her uncle said. He returned to the newspaper he was reading, ignoring the book she held out to him. “I have no idea who she could be.”
“But...” Ella repeated what she had already told him three times. “She looks just like me.”
“Coincidence.” Her uncle waved away the book. “I have no wish to see it,” he said. “Put it back where you found it. There are other books you ought to be reading.”
Ella stared at him, a bitter taste slowly rising in her throat, and then went back up to the library. She sat down again with the book and opened it and looked at the photograph for a very long time. After that she turned the next few pages, and finally, she saw the woman again.
This time it was a picture of a group of captured woman concentration camp guards, all in those grey uniform jackets and skirts and some of them in jackboots. In the second row, just behind a very tall woman guard, Ella found the girl again. It was the same girl, her head tilted slightly as she listened to the tall woman say something, and this time there was no doubt at all. At home, Ella had a photograph of herself in the same position. The tilt of the head, the slight twist of the shoulders, the arching of the neck – they were all exactly the same.
The caption below this photograph was again one Ella could understand. The picture showed woman guards captured by the Allies after the liberation of the concentration camp at Altkirche in 1945.
She took up the book to bed with her that evening. Normally this was something she did not do; it was forbidden by her uncle, who always said books lived in the library and should be permitted to stay at home where they belonged. But something very strongly suggested to her that if she left the book where she had found it, she would not find it again. She remembered her uncle’s attitude, the turning away of the head, the determined reading of the paper, and she realised that he had known all about this girl, knew the photo was in the book, and that he didn’t want her to have that photo. She carefully rearranged the books of that shelf to make it appear that there was nothing missing.
That evening, safe in her room with the door locked, she took out the book again and dug a small old German-English dictionary out of the bottom of her leather suitcase, and set out to translate what she could of the book, word by word.
After she was done, she lay awake for hours. When she finally slept, she had dreams which on waking she remembered just enough of to be glad she couldn’t remember more.
In the morning, at breakfast, her uncle gave her a strange look. At least twice he was about to say something but didn’t. As soon as breakfast was over she made some excuse and hurried up to her room, got the book, and went out to the garden. It was cold in the garden, and a thin layer of frost lay over everything, but she thought she would be undisturbed there.
She wasn’t. Her aunt leaned out of the kitchen door. “Ella. Come in here before you freeze.”
Sighing, she went in and sat down in the warm kitchen. Her aunt, a sturdy woman of little education and a cheerful round face, bustled around making some kind of pie. Occasionally she glanced at Ella and her book.
“What’s that you got there?” she asked finally. “You ought to learn to cook and keep house, never know when you might need it, instead of...”
“Tante,” said Ella on impulse, opening the book to the by now familiar page, “can you tell me if you know who this is?”
It was as if someone had taken a cloth and wiped her aunt’s face clear of all emotion. “Why did you have to find that?” She looked hurriedly over her shoulder. “Does he know you saw this?”
“Yes, I asked him. He refused even to look at it.”
“I’m not surprised. All these years, and they still haven’t quite come to terms with it. They all keep hoping that somehow the past will vanish without a trace.”
“But why? Who is this woman?”
“That young woman, my dear girl,” said Ella’s aunt, leaning over the table to whisper in her ear, “was your dad’s mum, his mum. Your grandmother.”
“They called her the Angel of Death,” Ella said. “I really couldn’t understand all that was written about her in the book, but they did say that she was lucky not to be hanged along with Irma Grese and the others. From what I could read, she was almost dementedly cruel.”
“It was the times,” said her aunt defensively. “My own father was in the army. He wasn’t a Nazi. When he thought about it at all he hated them, but he had to do what they told him.” She shrugged. “It was the times,” she repeated.
“But how...” Ella struggled to explain. “All my life, I’ve been told that my grandparents from my father’s side were in the camps. Nobody explained further, and I’d always thought they were, you know, prisoners.”
“His dad was, certainly.” Her aunt hurriedly checked the pie and came back to Ella. “I believe he was a social democrat, so they locked him up. He spent the whole war in the camps. But not she, oh no. I don’t know much about her. I never met her and they don’t speak about her, but I do know that she never was anything but a guard at the camps.”
“What happened to make her do all that the book said? How could she...I’m sorry,” Ella said, as suddenly she began to sob. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry.” She just kept crying.
“It’s all right,” her aunt said. “Cry and get it out of your system. You’ll feel better after that.”
But Ella didn’t.
Ella went home the next day, at her own insistence. Along with her went the book, hidden in her suitcase between a folded blue dress and a pair of slacks. She hugged her aunt, shook hands politely with her uncle, and wondered if she could ever return there again.
For several days after she returned, her parents and everyone else she knew wondered what was wrong. She seemed to be living in another world, her thoughts always elsewhere. Her mother tried to speak to her once.
“Ella – what’s wrong? Ever since you came back you’re acting so strange. Did...did anything happen there?”
Ella almost laughed when she realised what her mother was really asking. “No, Mutti. I didn’t get raped or molested or anything of the sort. Don’t worry.”
Her mother’s face went bright red. “I’m sure I didn’t mean –“
“It’s all right. Everything’s fine. I’ll be all right.” She turned away and reached for a book, but the only one she could find to pick up was that one. So she didn’t.
Once or twice she felt like asking her mother if she knew anything. She got as far as walking into the room while her mother was darning socks, and opened her mouth to speak before abruptly thinking better of it. Her mother, engrossed in her work, didn’t notice, for which Ella was grateful.
Finally, one day, she went to the public library. “Helga Otto?” the elderly librarian said doubtfully, peering at Ella through her thick glasses. “It’s not an unusual name.” She clicked some keys on her computer. “Do you have any other details?”
“She was an SS auxiliary,” Ella said, dry-mouthed. “She was a Helferin with the rank of Erstaufseherin.” She tried to lick her lips, but even her tongue had gone dry. “She was a guard at the concentration camp at Altkirche in 1945. They called her the Angel of Death,” she added. “That’s all I know.”
The librarian sat back and was regarding her carefully. “May I ask why you want this information?”
There it was, the question she had dreaded. “There’s a chance...” she began, but then decided to dispense with the qualification. “She was my grandmother,” she said simply. “That’s why I’m here.”
The librarian stared at her for a long moment. “I’ll be getting off work in half an hour,” she said. “Wait for me.”
“My sister,” said the librarian, “was a prisoner at Altkirche camp from 1942 onwards. She was a Communist.”
They sat opposite each other in the little cafe. The librarian was bundled up much warmer than the girl. “It’s age,” she had said, half-apologetically. “It thins the blood.”
Now she pushed her cappuccino to one side and leaned across the table. “Is she still alive?” she asked.
“My grandmother? No, she died the year I was born. I never knew her.”
“My sister,” the librarian said, “told me of the Angel of Death many times. She used to tell me of how whenever she thought of the years in the camp, she thought of the Angel. More than once, I’ve held her myself and soothed her nightmares away, after she woke screaming about the Angel.
“It destroyed her when the Angel was acquitted. She was living for revenge in those days after the war, and she had hoped to see the Angel get the rope like Grese and Volkenrath and the other SS women. She was never the same after they let the Angel go, not till the day she died. I’m sorry if this distresses you.”
“No,” Ella said. “Please go on. I need to know the truth.”
“Kristin, that’s my sister,” the librarian said, “told me many times about the Angel and her whip. The Angel didn’t whip anyone with it – that wasn’t her style. She would stand at the gates every morning and evening when the work parties went out, and any time she saw anyone even stumble, or look especially starved or weak, she would tap that woman on the shoulder with the whip and tell her to fall out of line. Nobody would ever see that woman again.
“There were many stories about the Angel. Even the camp guards, the men, were scared of her, though she had no authority over them. Kristin told me that she’d look at you and set the blood to freezing in your veins. Sometimes, if the Angel was in an especially good mood, she would laugh and joke with the prisoners, and that was especially dangerous, because her mood would suddenly change, like the weather. Then if you were still smiling she would reach for her whip and tap you with it.
“One episode about the Angel, Kristin told me about several times. It was the single clearest memory she had from her time in the camp. There was this Jewish girl, Kristin said, a Slav. A pretty little thing, short and thin with large eyes. For some reason, the Angel took a fancy to this girl. She took her out of the camp and put her to work as a servant in the Helferinnen’s barrack. The girl was given good food and even clothes – real clothes, not camp uniform. She was almost treated like a human.
“Then, one day in early 1945, they had this new transport, which came in from one of the camps in Poland that had been evacuated before the Russians could get there. This transport had been thrown together hurriedly and had a mix of male and female prisoners. They were all put in the Altkirche camp until they could be taken somewhere else.”
The librarian sipped her coffee and looked out of the window at the grey, overcast evening. “Kristin told me it was a grey day with frost, something like this. The new transport came in, and of course the Angel was at the gate with her whip, making selections from among the women for extermination.
“There was a particular woman she selected, tapped her with the whip and told her to fall out. Now there were other SS women guarding the transport, and one of them was an Oberaufseherin, who outranked the Angel, and she was present just then. Maybe she just didn’t like the Angel’s face, or perhaps there was some kind of old enmity, but she flat out refused to have the Polish woman killed and told her to get back with the other prisoners.
“The Angel didn’t say anything, Kristin said. Her face didn’t move a muscle. But that evening she brought the Jewish girl out and the SS guards hanged her and the Angel made the entire camp watch. Kristin said the Angel made sure the Jewish girl strangled slowly.
“I suppose,” the librarian said, “that was her idea of revenge.”
“No wonder,” Ella whispered, “my family wanted to keep it secret. No wonder they hate me.”
“I don’t follow you. Why should your family hate you?”
Ella reached for the book in her bag. It fell open automatically to the familiar page, and she handed it over without looking. The librarian glanced at the photo, and up at her, and back again. At last she sighed and gave the book back.
“It’s not your fault,” she said gently. “You can’t help it.”
“I still don’t understand how anyone could do what she did,” Ella told the older woman. “I’ve been trying to understand, since I saw the photo, but I still can’t. And there’s another thing.” She looked down at her hands. “If I look so much like her,” she said, “what more of her do I have in me? Could I do what she did?”
“I think,” said the librarian, “there’s nobody on earth who’s all good or all evil. We can be both, or either. It depends on the circumstances.” She tapped the book on the table. “If the war had never happened,” she said, “if Hitler had been killed at Ypres in the First War, or something like that, this woman might have been an artist, or singer, or simply a nice Hausfrau making knockwurst for her family. It’s not her fault that the circumstances were such that they released the worst elements of her character. It was her fault that she made no attempt to control them, or that if she did, the attempts weren’t nearly good enough.
“Do you understand?”
“I think I do.” Ella sipped the last of her coffee. “I dream about her, you know.”
“The first few times, I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe I was imagining my dreams. I used to wake up and think I imagined what I’d dreamt. Does that make sense?”
“But then I began waking up in the middle of the dreams, and I couldn’t pretend I was imagining them. The dreams were always about her. At first, I used to see her as though it were a movie. You know, as if I were outside, watching through a window or something. I’d see her in the camp, watch her hitting the inmates or kicking them, abusing them. It was pretty awful, but I could bear it, because it was still like watching a film.
“And then it began to change. The first time that happened, I saw her looking at me. Not just in my direction, but at me. Then I realised I was one of them, one of the women in the camp – and she beckoned at me. I remember walking up to her, my knees trembling with fear of what she’d do. Just before I reached her, I woke up.
“That’s been happening every night since, till the night before last. Each time, I’m a woman in the camp, and she looks at me with my eyes, set in my face, and I’m terrified. Do you understand? I’m terrified of what I’m about to do.
“Each night, I was closer to her before I woke. Each night, I was certain that this time she’d touch me, say something, perhaps, or kill me, I don’t know what. And when I woke up, I wouldn’t go back to sleep because I was so frightened that I’d fall back into the dream.”
“And last night you dreamt something else?”
“Yes.” Ella paused and drew a deep breath. “Last night I wasn’t a terrified prisoner, walking towards her. I was watching a terrified prisoner shambling towards me.” She leaned forward. “Last night I was the Angel.”
“I see.” The librarian was looking at her with deep compassion. “What did you think about that?”
“That was the worst thing,” Ella said. “I was looking at this prisoner, and I didn’t see someone human. I saw something. A dirty, pathetic, shambling Jew, totally a subhuman. That she...it...was terrified of me only made it more contemptible. To have pity on such a creature...it was impossible.” She drew a long, shuddering breath. “I don’t want to talk about what I did to it...to her...in the dream after that. I woke up when I started laughing. I was still laughing when I woke up and I couldn’t stop.”
The librarian’s hand fell lightly on hers. “You feel a lot of anger, don’t you? But at whom is that anger directed?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Is it at your family, for keeping the truth hidden? Is it at your grandmother for being what she was? Or is it because, as you think, your family...hates you, for looking like her? Or...” the old woman looked into Ella’s eyes. “Is it that you’re full of anger at yourself, for finding the truth and not being able to let it go?”
“I don’t know,” Ella said. “Can you tell which it is?”
“No, but I can tell you this – you have to find peace with yourself. If you don’t, the anger will consume you.”
“How do I find peace with myself?”
The old librarian smiled. “It starts with forgiveness,” she said. “If you want to let go of anger, you have to start by being able to forgive.”
“I think you know, don’t you?”
Ella looked at her and down at the book and up at her again.
“There’s something I have to do,” she said. “Do you know what that might be?”
“Yes,” said the librarian, smiling slightly, and reaching for her purse. “It’s something I’d have done in your place.”
In the watery light of winter, the cemetery was dank and gloomy. Ella shivered as she passed through the gates, and between the rows of tombs. Rain fell in a thin drizzle, and the grass between the graves was covered by a thin layer of dirty snow.
Ella walked between the rows of graves, peering, trying to find the right place. She had never been in this cemetery before, and she had to find the right portion by checking the dates on the gravestones. It was an hour before she came to the right section, and almost an hour longer before she found the right grave.
It stood by itself, a little further from the others, with a plain cross at the head and her grandmother’s name – the married name, not Helga Otto – on it. A big tangled bush hung snow-sprinkled branches over it, and more snow lay on it. There were no flowers or any other sign that anyone had visited the grave in a long, long time.
Ella stood looking down at the grave until the cold began to eat through the jacket and woollen cap she wore. Then she knelt, opened her bag, and put the book on the grave. Scooping earth from the graveside, she covered the book with it. Then she stood up and touched the headstone.
“I forgive you,” she said, uncertain whether she spoke to her dead grandmother or to herself. “I forgive you.”
Then she turned and walked out of the cemetery, not once looking back, smiling and crying at once with the relief.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013