Today, I will be Saul.
I shall awake well before dawn, as usual, and lie staring into the darkness, so total that I can see nothing, not even the planks of wood that make up the bottom of the pallet fifteen centimetres above my nose. The man to my right will moan and turn restlessly, pushing against me with a bony elbow, and I will feel the urge to push him back, to kick him away. But he will be asleep, and not know what he’s doing, so I will do nothing except squeeze against the wall to my left, as far away from his elbow as I can.
I will not know who this man is. He will have arrived the previous evening, and I will have been too tired after returning from the day’s labours to have any energy to find out anything about him. But he will be occupying Moishe’s old place, because Moishe will have died yesterday in the morning. It will have been coming; he will have been old and very sick.
I will have no doubt I will soon find out who the man in the bunk beside me is; if he lives long enough, that is, for me to get to know him. He will bring news, too, of the world elsewhere; perhaps the rumours which say the war will end soon will be true, perhaps they won’t, and perhaps he will not know either way. But he will have eyes and ears, and he will have seen something.
For now, I will lie awake, staring into the darkness. The darkness is safe and familiar, the darkness holds no terrors. In the darkness, nobody can see to hurt you.
It is the sunlight which is dangerous. It is the sunrise that can kill.
The air will be thick with the condensed breath of a hundred and fifty men, and solid with the stink of their bodies. But I will be used to it. Their very closeness, the smell of them, means life and protection. I will not try to go back to sleep, something that will be impossible anyway; the hard wood of the pallet will press through the thin cloak of my flesh to torment my bones.
Lying awake, I will smell the air and I will think of Sarah, and where she might be now; I will think of the little room we will have shared for the two months of our life together, the aroma of the flowers she would have put in a vase on the shelf, the feel of her breasts against my chest when we would have made love. Sarah will have been delicate, like a flower herself; and here there is no room for flowers, except in the Kommandant’s garden.
There will be no point of thinking of Sarah or of the Kommandant’s garden. Unlike others, who will find solace in the past, I will prefer to try and live in the moment. It is only the present moment that matters; the past is gone and the future never to be.
I will briefly ask myself, once again, why I am here, why all of us are. Will it be simply because of what we are, the Jewish religion we bear, which will have made us convenient scapegoats; or will it be something else? What about those who will have been sent here, who are not Jews, but because they are criminals or have the wrong political belief? Perhaps we will someday find out. Perhaps it will not matter. Either way, I will be here and now, and the cause will not be important; the fact that I am here will be.
In not so long now the klaxons will sound and the Kapo will open the door, demanding we appear for Appel, the morning roll call. I will push against the man next to me, until he mumbles and stirs, and keep pushing until he gets out of the bunk. I will see his face briefly – he is balding and has a nose like an eagle’s beak. I could crawl past him, but if he does not get out, the Kapo will kill him, and perhaps we will all be punished.
After Appel we will be given breakfast, a bowl of soup with, if we are fortunate, a knob of potato. I will store the potato in my cheek, gnawing at it little by little through the day, making it last as long as I can. The outer, soft layer will go fast, but the inside, almost raw, will last. I will have become an expert at making it last.
Today, we will be working digging drainage ditches outside of camp. It will be exhausting, killing work, but all I will be qualified to do; I am no metalworker or carpenter. Perhaps, as I will have heard whispers, someday there will be an air raid on the town whose roofs we will be able to see in the distance, and we will be sent to dig out the dead and privately revel in their suffering; but that will not be today. Today we will dig ditches till we drop, and then the Kapos will whip us till we get up, and then we will dig until we drop again.
Today the guard will be of Latvians, but quite good ones, not those who might kill for fun. One of them, Piladzis, will even call me over.
“Three seven eight six,” he will say, calling me by my number, “here’s a piece of bread. Eat it quickly, before anybody sees.” I will not know why he will do this and I will not ask. The bread will be thin, hard, curling at the edges, but I will eat it as quickly as I can, without thinking of what it tastes like. Taste will not be important. Life will be.
Today I will hear something in the distance, over the eastern horizon, and I will think it to be thunder. But the others will whisper to each other, that it is Russian artillery, that the Russians are coming. I will not believe it, because that will give me hope, and hope is something I will not want.
It is the hopeful who will die, once their hopes are betrayed. I will merely live in the moment.
And we will be marched back to camp, and given another bowl of soup and a crust of bread, and then we will be locked into our barracks.
I will roll into my place and look for the newcomer with the nose like an eagle’s beak, but he will not be there.
“I think he dropped dead out on the quarry,” someone will say. “They must have buried him out in the woods.”
I will shrug and turn away. I will tell myself, sternly, not to feel anything, not to give in to the temptation of emotion. He will be dead, but I will be alive, at least for the moment.
I will be Saul, and I will live through today.
Today, I will be Willi.
I shall be sitting in the south-western watchtower, looking across the camp to the horizon in the east. I will be watching for the first pink glow of light on the horizon. I will have loved watching the sun rise, ever since boyhood, will have loved the paleness of the horizon turn to pink, the pink then turn red as the ball of the sun appears, and then finally to fresh gold.
It will be cold, and I will pull my greatcoat around me. I will be sipping coffee with a dash of Schnapps, feeling it spread warmth inside my gut, and enjoy the fleeting moments of pleasure. The watchtower will be open and exposed to the wind all night, and I will feel gritty with tiredness.
All night, I will have sat in the watchtower, looking over the camp and playing my searchlight slowly back and forth, in slow sweeps across the barracks and the alleys between. I will not spend time looking outside the camp; there will be nothing there. Except for the night patrol, there will also be nothing moving in the camp, not during the night; but my orders will be clear, to keep the searchlight moving, and by watching its beam they will know if I am on the job.
Despite the coffee and the Schnapps, I will be hungry. We guards will not have access to the good food the officers will have, unless we take part in the camp’s illegal black market. Everyone else will be part of that black market, selling cigarettes and favours for food; but I will be too diffident, too unsure, and so I will not take part in it. If I take part, I will be sure, I will be caught and sent to a punishment battalion on the Eastern Front.
I will not want to die in a blizzard on the Eastern Front, under the treads of a Russian tank, and so I will not take any chances. And I will sit, running my tongue over my teeth, while the searchlight before me swings slowly across my section of the camp, to and fro, to and fro.
Sitting in the watchtower, feeling the uncomfortable edge of the MP40 submachine gun digging into my side even through the greatcoat, the steel helmet increasingly heavy on my head, I will ask myself a simple question; how, why, have I ended up here? I will recall my school days, and the times the SS will have come marching by in the parades with their smart uniforms. I will think of my father, who will have said that the SS will be a better career than the Army; that in the SS a man will be able to get somewhere, make a name for himself.
My father will have been two years dead now, in an air raid, but the others will not be; my mother, my sister, and Helga, they will be alive. I will think of Helga, of my sister Greta, and my mother, who all will have whispered on my last leave that it is much better I am here in the camp service instead of out on the Front; the news from there, they will say, grows grimmer by the day.
My chin will be rough with stubble, and after my stint is over I will have to rush and shave and get ready for inspection. There will be a spot under my jaw I will miss shaving, my boots will be unpolished, and my shirt collar will be dirty; the Scharführer will be furious and punish me with extra guard duty. While the others will have gone down to the town to drink in their time off, I will sit lonely in the watchtower, struggling to stay awake, knowing that exhaustion is no excuse for failure.
I will know of this, so when the Scharführer punishes me, I will be angry. I will need some outlet for my anger, but being a lowly Sturmmann I will be able to do next to nothing. I will at least be glad that I am not put on duty alongside the Latvians; they are people I will have despised from the first day I have been here. I will have always detested them, even more than I do the Jews, although I will not be permitted to say this aloud.
The day will be as hot as the night was cold, and the sun will bounce off the walls of the quarry and beat on my steel helmet. The Kapos will recognise my mood – they are always sensitive, very sensitive, to moods – and they will be ferocious to the inmates, whom they will beat with staves at the slightest sign of slackening.
I will see one particular inmate, thin and balding, whom I will not recognise. Not that this means much, there have been new inmates being brought in from the East every day, but for some reason this man will draw my simmering anger, distilling it into a white-hot fury. Perhaps it will be because he will be working so slowly and badly, or perhaps it will be merely his nose – the nose of a Roman patrician, a Caesar, adorning the face of a scrawny, louse-infested Jew.
I will come up behind this man while he is filling a wheelbarrow with broken stone, very slowly, as though each piece is an immense boulder. “What the hell are you doing?” I will ask him.
He will look at me without comprehension. Probably he will be without any knowledge of German. Close up, his face will seem even more disgusting to me, with thin, delicate bones and deep-set, myopic eyes. These will be the features that should belong to a teacher or a scientist, not to a useless, parasitic, thieving Jew.
I will remember how I have been told, over and over, of the evil nature of the Jews, and I will recall how dirty they are, how they wallow in their own filth in the barracks. I will remember this and I will look at this Jew with his Caesar’s nose, I will think of the Scharführer‘s abuse, and I will hate him all the more.
“Work faster,” I will say, pointing to the stones, and still he will look at me, as though trying to drag out the meaning of the words from the air.
The fat Kapo with the bald head, whose name I will never be able to remember, will have been following me with an anxious eye and will soon realise where my anger is now directed. “Did you not hear what the Herr Sturmmann said?” he will scream, and he will raise his stave and bring it down hard on the man’s back. The man will fall down, twitch a little, and a little runnel of blood will come out of his mouth. He will not even find time to gasp.
The Kapo will look at me anxiously. “I did not intend to kill him, Herr Sturmmann,” he will say.
“Kill him?” I will reply, suddenly feeling as though a boil has been lanced, the pent up anger draining out of me like the trickle of blood on the quarry floor. “What are you talking about? He dropped dead of a heart attack.”
The Kapo will look immensely relieved and grateful, and I will suppress an urge to laugh in his face, relishing the knowledge of the power I have over him.
“Get him buried,” I will say, and saunter over to the other side of the quarry. Even the sun on my helmet and submachine gun will not seem so hot. And the rumbling on the horizon will only be thunder, not Russian cannon.
Perhaps, I will think, while on duty tonight in the watchtower, I will focus my searchlight on the Kapos’ barrack, and give them all a scare.
Today I will be Willi, and I shall have a little fun.
Today, I will be Aaliyah.
I will come out of my mother’s house and look up and down the street, waiting, watching. This is something I will have learnt to do over years, because if I see something that might be trouble, I will know to go back indoors. I will have learnt this lesson well.
Today, though, I will see nothing unusual. The street will be mostly deserted at this hour, though even a few months ago it will have been busy with traffic. But to my left, now, it will have been sealed off by the high grey wall with the rolls of wire on top, so traffic will not come through this way any longer.
“Aaliyah,” my mother will say, “cover your hair.”
Sighing inwardly, I will pull the headscarf further over my head. I will sling my satchel over my shoulder and begin walking to school. I will at first, almost instinctively, turn left, and catch myself – that is the way I will have gone all these years, and it will have been an easy walk. But now I will have to turn right and walk for an hour, and that is why I will have awoken while it is still dark, and start getting ready for school.
I will wait a few moments at the corner for Najwa, who will have been my dearest friend from the earliest time I will be able to remember. Najwa will be late today, and I will remember that her mother is pregnant and maybe she will have given birth to the baby last night. I will think of going to Najwa’s house to see; her mother will of course have given birth to the baby at home, because the hospital will now be too far away to go to, and across a checkpoint besides.
But going to Najwa’s house will make me late, though I will want to see the baby, in case it has come. So I will wait a couple of minutes more, and then continue walking, although looking over my shoulder every few moments to see if Najwa is coming. I will not see her, and I will imagine that she is at her older sister’s, perhaps, who will have lived across town with her husband since her marriage last year. But Najwa will have not failed to tell me about it.
I will be half way to school before the thought will come to me – perhaps it is not the baby, perhaps something else has happened to Najwa, and she will not be coming.
As soon as this thought will come to me, I will somehow become certain – totally certain – that it is the truth. From where I will be at this moment, I will just be able to see over the top of the wall, to where the settlement’s buildings rise white and pink in the morning sun. I will remember how the hill they grow on will once have been a little forest, and my parents and I will have gone picnicking there; I will remember my mother and I running through the grass under the trees, laughing. I will recall how the grass is gone, and I will never run barefoot through it again with my mother; I will remember how the forest has been removed and replaced by the settlement, and the wall grown up between it and the street on which I am walking now.
I will suddenly be certain, too, that someone will have been watching me from one of the high buildings for some time; someone who will be studying my every move, the way I am walking, the way I am swinging my arms and putting down my feet. I will suddenly want to run as fast as I can, but I will hold back because running will make me a target.
My father will have told me this over and over again, ever since the beginning of the settlement; Aaliyah, do not run, whatever happens, don’t run. My father will know what he says; he will have been in Gaza during the bombardments, when running, even from a shell, is a sentence of death. He will have left home even earlier than me today, because he has to work, and in order to work, he will have to go through two sets of checkpoints, and line up at both. Perhaps they will let him through, perhaps not, it will depend on their whim. If they do not let him through, we will not perhaps have supper tonight.
I will have good knowledge of what it is to go without supper; it will not be the first time, and it will not be the last.
I will take a deep breath and walk on, and the road will dip and the wall will hide me again from the watching eyes. And I will think of Najwa, and I will be certain that something is wrong, and I will make up my mind to go to her home on the way back.
I will reach school, and Najwa will not be there. Fatah guards will be, though, watching everyone, and one will find an excuse to make me open my bag. I will feel his eyes run over my breasts while I hold my bag open for him. I will remember what my father will have repeated for the hundredth time yesterday, that the Fatah and Abu Mazen are collaborators of the occupation, worse enemies of ours than the settlers themselves. But there will be nothing I can do but let him look at my body until he will have had enough and let me go to class.
Today will be the day of the week when we have Chemistry laboratory, which I will have loved ever since the first day; I will have long wanted to be a chemist, it will be my goal in life. But once again the Chemistry lab period will be cancelled today, because the chemicals necessary will not be available owing to the checkpoints and the restrictions. It will almost be routine by now.
As I leave school at the end of the day, I will meet Ibrahim in the street. I will smile at him a little, because I will have long known he likes that. Ibrahim will have thought for years that I am very pretty, and I will know that he wishes I were his girlfriend, and I will know I never will be. I will think it is a pity, but I will have nothing more for him but a vague affection.
Still, I will smile, because it will make him happy and cost me nothing.
Ibrahim’s brother Ramzy will be in Gaza, with HAMAS. Ibrahim will have talked many times about going to join him, and when he will come walking quickly towards me I will imagine he is going to talk about Ramzy again, and I will wish he might not have seen me. But he will have something else on his mind.
“Aaliyah,” he will say. “Have you heard about Najwa?”
I will feel dread. It will be like a small, cold fist, just under my heart. My mouth will grow numb, but not too numb to whisper. “What?”
“Last night her sister’s house was burned by the settlers,” he will say. “It was a price-tag attack. Everything they had was burned, and her husband is in hospital. He may not live.”
I will feel my mouth moving, again. “Najwa?” I will feel like strangling Ibrahim. “What happened to Najwa?”
Ibrahim will hold me by the upper arm, tight enough that I will find later that his fingers have left bruises. “She went out late this morning with a knife and attacked the first Jews she saw.” He will hesitate. “Not that she did much damage, you know how small she...”
“What happened to her?” I will make my mouth ask.
“A settler shot her in the leg,” he will say. “Then when she lay bleeding on the street, they took pictures and then the settler shot her again in the head.”
And I will see Najwa, I will see her with her smiling face, and her face will change, her eyes go blank, and her skin smear with blood, blood spreading, everywhere, and I will hear Ibrahim shout as my consciousness slips away.
Much later, I will sit at home, listening to my mother whisper to my father that Najwa’s house is to be demolished tomorrow, even though the baby is on the way. I will listen, and I will not understand. I will try to mourn, and nothing will come. I will try to cry, and tears will fall inside me, but not from my eyes.
I will be Aaliyah, and I will be a stone today.
Today, I will be Barukh.
I shall have already been up for hours, wishing I had been allowed to go on the price tag attack on the Arabs, hating Avram because he will have refused to take me. I will have listened to them return, happy and chattering and excited, talking about how they had successfully burnt an Arab house, and how this was the only way to teach the dirty scum a lesson.
I will not believe the Arabs can be taught a lesson. I will remember that they are savages who hate us all and want us gone. I will remember that some of them fought on the side of Hitler in the war.
I will remember the first time I will have seen an Arab, a dirty Bedouin with a scarred face and one eye. He will have shuffled along the pavement like a thief, which he will almost certainly have been. I will have been too young then to have challenged him. Today, he will not have been able to get away.
“Barukh,” Avram will say, “there will be more chances for you to take part in the task of defending our people. Don’t be disheartened.”
That will be easy for him to say, but I will not be so quickly mollified. Taking my gun, which does not leave my side – none of us will ever be without our guns – I will step out on to the balcony of my unit. Once this will all have been a useless forest, which the Arabs never will have had the gumption to develop, but now it will be home for the wife I will soon have, and the children who will follow. This will be a place where we step out to take the world in our fist.
I will stand on the balcony, brooding that Avram might say sweet words, but he will not trust me with taking part in the attacks to teach the Arabs their place. I will think this is because the attacks are too soft, and the proof will be clear to me: that we have to have that wall across the landscape, which they say is to keep us safe from the Arabs, but which is actually to keep us from the lands which the Arabs occupy, but which are ours by birthright.
YHWH gave us this land, and made us His Chosen upon earth, I will tell myself. Why, in that case, I will ask, should the Arabs even exist?
I will stand on the balcony and I will remember my great grandfather, who will have died in the camps, not knowing that his wife lived and had managed to bear his baby. I will remember his photo, which I have been thinking of framing, but which lies now at the bottom of a drawer in my desk.
I will hear once more my father’s voice, telling me of what will have happened to his grandfather, of the way he will have died. I will remember him telling me that I must vow to protect our people forever, against everyone. I will remember making this vow, looking up into his eyes. They will have been tired eyes, but still filled with fire.
Standing on my balcony, I will vow, once more, that the fate that befell him and those like him must never be allowed to happen again. Whoever might even potentially be the enemy must be eliminated, I will tell myself fiercely.
Far away, on the other side of the wall, I will see an Arab walking on a stretch of exposed road. It will be a female, and young, but she will still be the enemy. Even an Arab baby hates us, I will remember, and is the enemy. I will raise my rifle, keeping the tiny figure in my sights, and wait with my finger on the trigger, ready to fire. But the Arab female will simply keep walking, and soon be lost to view.
Later, after breakfast, I will go out. Today I will be on security duty, and filled with frustration, for everyone will have done something against the Arabs but me. And then I will see her.
It will be an Arab female, young and thin, on the pavement, with a knife in her hand, slashing and cutting at the air, screaming. I will see her and her knife; I will see, also, the Jews around, shrinking back with terror on their faces, and I will have a sudden great anger come upon me. I will whisper to myself that never again will I let Jews feel fear, and I will take the gun off my shoulder. My finger will press the trigger, and the Arab female will fall to the street, blood pouring from a shattered thigh. The knife will go skittering from her hand and lie in the gutter, where it, and she, belong.
The terrified settlers will come forward, uncertainly, the fear slowly leaving their faces. A couple of them will bring out mobile phones and take photos.
The Arab will begin to stir, to slowly push herself up on her spindly arms. I will see the uncertainty appear again in the faces of the Jews gathered around, and I will know fear is not far away. And the rage will return, and my determination that this useless half-living thing should threaten us, and perhaps kill. If given half a chance, she will kill...
My gun will be light in my hand, and pressing the trigger a joy. The Arab will fall as though she has been clubbed, her head half blown away.
I will shoulder my gun and go home. I will take out the photo of my great-grandfather and look at it a long time.
“Rest in peace, Saul,” I will say. “It will never happen again.”
Avram may or may not take me next time, but I will no longer care. I will have done my bit.
Today I will be Barukh, and I will be a hero.
Today, I will be human. Today, I will smile and I will cry.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016