The smell of pine in the morning air mixes with the smoke from the burning town as we walk up the road from the camp. The pine smell is familiar, the smoke is strange, a heavy, oily smell that hangs low on the ground as though hugging it for warmth.
“Incendiaries,” Rottenführer Schepke says. “The Tommis used incendiaries.”
“How do you know?” I ask curiously.
“You get to recognise that smell of burnt flesh if you’ve ever worked on a crematorium.” Schepke laughs, a brief giggle. “Once you’ve burnt enough Jews you get to know the smell all right, Herr Untersturmführer.”
I look past him at the line of camp inmates trudging after us, bowed under their shovels and pickaxes. They look down at their feet as they walk, as though the tools are so heavy that they can’t stand upright, as though they can’t stand upright ever again. “You were at Birkenau, weren’t you?” I ask.
“That’s right.” Schepke giggles again. “Burnt Jews, burnt Aryans, they smell exactly the same. No difference at all!”
“Yes, well.” I know Schepke is enjoying this, trying to make me uncomfortable, and he’s succeeded. “The Führer says we will make the Tommi Terrorflieger pay.”
Schepke shrugs noncommittally. The town is still over the bulge of the hill, but we can see the smoke now, like a grey stain hanging between us and the dawn. I drop back a little, walking down past the line. There are only two guards, and even they are probably unnecessary. The kapos do all the guarding that’s necessary, and with their whips and staves they’re more deadly than the guards anyway.
The head kapo sees me and whips off his cap. He’s a man with the most porcine countenance I have ever seen on a human being, tiny eyes and an upturned nose buried between slabs of fat. “Herr Untersturmführer,” he says, eyeing me warily.
I nod. I don’t like the kapos. Nobody likes the kapos, including themselves. They know they stay alive only as long as they’re brutal enough to suit us. The moment a kapo stops being brutal, he’s no longer a kapo, and he’s sent back to the ordinary camp. And then, before the night is over, he’s a dead ex-kapo.
But they do a necessary, an important job. It’s because of them that four of us are all that’s required to control so many inmates. So I nod, and smile a little. “Carry on,” I say.
Now I’m near the tail of the column, and I can see him, my beloved. He’s trudging along with a spade hanging over his shoulder, his arm wrapped round the handle to keep it in place. His arm, so thin that the shaft of wood seems thicker, so thin that for a moment I am terrified that the bone will break from the weight, like a brittle stick.
I walk along behind the column, looking at them all, looking at him, my beloved. I have been watching him for months now, since the first day I saw him. We’d arrived on the same day at the camp – I from training, he from whatever nameless Hungarian town had spat him out and packed him on a train along with all the others. I’d seen him waiting at the gate, waiting to be let in, and I’d fallen instantly in love.
My love, I think to myself, and I have a sudden guilty flash of Anja’s face, as I’d seen her last, waving goodbye to me at the bus station. The buildings behind had been in ruins after a Terrorflieger attack a few weeks earlier. Anja’s own family was now living in an attic elsewhere in town, but she’d come to see me off, even though it had meant walking right past the bombed out shell of her former home. “Stay safe, Peter,” she’d said. “Stay safe for me.”
“I should tell you that,” I’d told her, nodding at the ruins. “I’ll probably be safer than you.”
“Shh.” She’d looked around quickly and put her finger to my lips, and then briefly raised herself on her toes to press her mouth to mine. “I’ll be waiting for you to come back,” she’d said.
“Yes,” I’d replied, and watched with relief as my bus had come in. “I’ve got to go,” I’d told her.
“Don’t forget me when you see all those Slav girls,” she’d replied, with a tiny smile.
“Never,” I’d replied quite truthfully, and waited until I was in the bus before, with a sudden almost violent impulse, I’d wiped my lips on my handkerchief, over and over, as though I was scrubbing them clean.
But that was months ago and Anja is far away, and I watch my beloved walk before me, his head down, the grey camp uniform flapping around him as though he’s shrinking inside it with every step he takes.
I don’t know your name, my beloved, I think. I don’t know your name, but I know your number, it’s eight two four eight six. I know your number and I repeat it to myself fifty times a day so I don’t forget. And someday, when all this is over, I will take you away from here, and we will go somewhere the sun shines warm. There I will no longer have to hide what I feel, no longer have to conceal what I am. There your body will fill out with muscle and health, and we will be together, and then, my love, you’ll tell me your name.
The town comes into view, the little town that the Tommi bombers have picked up like a toy and thrown down again, smashing it into a thousand pieces. It had been a pretty little town, totally harmless, without even a single soldier to its name, a town that had never had anything to do with a war. It had been a town where stone girls had danced around the fountain in the little square, and slow moving burghers had smoked pipes as they walked with their fat little wives and beautiful daughters past empty shop windows. But now there is nothing left of all that.
My love, I thought, do you feel happy? Do you think this is your vengeance? Are you exulting at the fate of these harmless people, who had nothing to do with what was done to you? But he doesn’t even look up, just like the others.
A BODO engineer is waiting for us, and leads us past other groups of rescuers to one of the oldest parts of the little old town. It was just old houses, small shops, dressmakers, bakeries and the like. Now it’s just smashed brick and slate and rubble.
“There were no air raid cellars, of course,” the BODO man informs us. He’s got a scratch down one cheek, and it’s leaking blood droplet by droplet. His eyes are red with smoke. “Nobody thought the town would ever be bombed. So they were all inside their houses when...” he shrugs expressively. “And then they came over again when we were trying to save the survivors of the first raid.”
I remember what it had felt like from the camp, as though someone had been pounding on the earth with a sledgehammer. “Were there many survivors?” I ask.
He stares at me a moment and turns away without a word. I wonder if he’s from the town. Perhaps he’s got a family here.
Rottenführer Schepke has taken part in rescue operations before, so he knows something about it and begins ordering the inmates around. I’m just the makeweight, the obligatory officer present. I watch my beloved enter the shell of a building, just knee high walls, and begin shovelling up the rubble. Each time he bends, his shoulder blades stick up like knives through the cloth of his camp uniform. I have a sudden mental image of what he’ll be like when we’re away from here, when he has food and his health and freedom back, when the muscle will lie heavy on his bones. How his skin will glide as he flexes his limbs...
Someone is calling my name. I blink and shake my head, as if waking up from sleep. “Ja?”
“Herr Untersturmführer,” Schepke calls again. “Over here, please.”
The BODO man is back, with someone from the fire brigade. They’re bent over a map. We discuss the likely places survivors might still be found, and I agree to whatever they suggest. It’s quite a long discussion, and when we’re done the sun is shining wanly through the thinning smoke.
I’m half way back to where I was standing when I hear the shout. It’s coming from the smashed house where I’d last seen my beloved, and it’s a shout of anger. I break into a run.
The head kapo is there, inside the ruin, standing over my beloved, who’s on the ground, on his knees. His hands are between his legs, holding something. The kapo, stave raised high, is just about to bring it crashing down on his head when I arrive.
“What’s going on?” I demand.
The kapo turns to me. His face is flushed, his little piggy eyes flashing. “Looting, Herr Untersturmführer,” he says, breathing so heavily the words come out as grunts. “I caught the bastard looting.”
“Looting?” I look around at the smashed ruin. “What on earth is there to loot in here?”
“A loaf of bread.” The kapo points at the object my beloved is clutching between his thighs. “I saw him dig it out, and when he saw me he tried to eat it. See, it’s still in his mouth.”
I look at my beloved, and for the first time ever, he looks back at me. There is something white between his teeth. As we stare at each other, he chews it, his jaws working, and swallows.
“See?” the kapo is almost shrieking. “Let me kill the bastard, Herr Untersturmführer.”
“Nein,” I say. I’m looking at my beloved, he’s looking back at me, and I don’t know whether I’m talking to him or to the kapo. “Nein.”
“Nein?” the kapo sounds as though I’m speaking a foreign language. “But he’s...”
“We need every hand we can get,” I tell him. “There are people buried under here, people who have to be rescued before they die. We need every bit of help we can get. You’ll kill nobody.”
“All right, Herr Untersturmführer,” the kapo says. The disappointment is heavy in his voice. “But afterwards when we get back to camp...”
“You’ll do nothing then either.” I force my gaze away from my beloved, turn to look at the kapo. “What will you accuse him of, eating bread? How will you prove it – force him to vomit it up?”
He says nothing. His pig face is white with rage.
“I think I can hear the Rottenführer calling for you,” I say.
My beloved and I look at one another once more, for what seems an eternity. Then he climbs off his knees and picks up his shovel.
“Come along, you,” the kapo says, and spits.
I watch them leave before I kick the remnants of the bread into a hole and push some rubble over it.
The sun is a watery ball struggling slowly into the sky.
Later, when the sun is a red ball in the west, we walk back up towards the camp. The inmates walk though they’ve taken the places of the corpses they’ve been digging up all day. They walk like men dead so long that nothing keeps them moving but habit alone.
I walk along at the end of my column, watching my beloved, willing him to look up once, to look at me, to acknowledge I exist. I walk along, knowing he won’t, remembering that last look that passed between us. I know now why he’d taken that bread, why he’d swallowed it while staring defiantly at me. I know what he’d wanted, what he’d expected from the kapo and then from me, what he’d tried to provoke me into giving him. I know, now, that life can be worse than anything else.
My love, I want to tell him, look at me just once more, I beg you. Just once more. And this time, my love, do it once, just once, without what I saw when you looked at me last, when you knew I wouldn’t give you what you wanted.
Look at me once more, my beloved, without that blazing hate in your eyes.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016