A man driven to madness
|Franz thought his old bones would break as the endless journey continued. He craved being allowed to sit down, but as his legs buckled beneath him, with no room to fall, he remained partially upright in the swaying darkness. Others moaned softly, babies cried, their cries weakening as time passed. The stench of unwashed humans and excrement filled the small, airless space and the train continued its journey, day after endless day. The steel wheels rattled noisily along iron rails. Franz became aware many had died, through lack of water, food, or the bone chilling cold, he couldn’t tell. Day turned into night, then back to day again so many times he and his fellow prisoners lost count. The fleeting daylight filtered through the cracks in the wooden walls along with a freezing wind.
Just as they all thought this hell would never end, the train began to slow until it stpped at last. Harsh voices outside shouted orders, dogs barked frantically. The door of the cattle truck crashed open, a sudden stream of light caused Franz to screw up his eyes, blinded after five days in darkness.
“Rous! Rous!” Germanic voices shouted harshly as soldiers roughly pulled at the prisoners and Alsatian dogs bit at their heels, snarling and slobbering. Old and desperately sick people fell to the ground, too weak to keep themselves upright. Franz knelt upon the frozen ground, then a kick to the ribs forced him to stand. “Rous! Juden swine!”
At last his eyes became accustomed to the harsh arc lights illuminating the dark moonless night. He glanced up toward the lights, snow flakes fluttered and twirled through the air falling on to the mass of humanity. Families clung together, not understanding where they were, even in which country. Small children gripped their parent’s hands, their shocked faces blank and expressionless after experiencing the horrors of the last five days.
Franz witnessed the anguished parents of these children, fear of the unknown etched upon grey faces, and for once he was thankful to be alone, with no family to care about.
Looking into the distance where an orange glow lit the sky, he first thought it was dawn approaching, yet realised, when he saw the clock on the station wall read four am, it was too early in the morning for the sun to be heralding yet another day in hell.
A few hundred yards away, in a barbed wire compound, lit by lights so powerful it seemed as bright as day, were men dressed in thin striped pyjamas, which offered them no protection against the bitter weather. They waited in silence for this latest batch of arrivals, their skeletal frames shivered in the early dawn.
As Franz watched on, the soldiers threw those too weak to walk, on to wooden carts pulled by tired looking horses. As they rounded the back wall of the station, sounds of gunshots resounded in the frosty air.
Elderly, and mothers with small children staggered through the vast metal gates. Incongruously a small group of musicians played classical music as the exhausted people trooped past.
Suddenly the pyjama-clad men began to run towards the train, surprising Franz with their ability to move so quickly. Soldiers yelled, screaming orders to the men to empty the wagons. The prisoners threw the belongings of the victims, along with the bodies of the ones who hadn’t survived, on to carts which they dragged away.
After the prisoners had emptied the train, armed kapos marched them back to the compound, leaving the recently arrived men and youths standing on the platform, compliant and showing no resistance against their fate. One of the German soldiers shouted out in Polish for anyone who had a trade to step forward. Dozens of men shuffled out of the line and each told an officer their name and trade. Franz’s turn came, he spoke softly, his voice raspy with thirst, “I am a carpenter, I can repair things or make beautiful objects,” he said, looking into the cruel eyes of his captor. The soldier wrote Franz’s name and occupation, before saying, “Old man, you should have gone with the others, we’ll see if you tell the truth!”
Camp life was brutal with barely any food to eat. Sickness swept throughout the camp but the will to live prevailed and people clung to even this hellish life,. Franz proved himself useful to the officers, repairing things and even making items of beauty for them, such as jewellery boxes which they could give to their wives or mistresses. Although he despised himself for doing it, he became part of the “Sonderkommandos” a group of Jews whose job was to clear out the bodies from the gas chambers.
One day as he watched a group of new arrivals queuing to enter the “showers” he noticed a small child, in one hand she held a wooden doll, the other held tightly by her young mother. They were naked and all their hair had been shaved from their heads. As they reached the entrance, one soldier screamed abuse at the child, tearing the doll from her hands, he ground the toy into the mud. The little girl’s intense bright blue eyes, pooled with tears, her white face looked up at Franz, she spoke in a language unfamiliar to him, before she and her mother entered the shower block along with two thousand others.
Franz imagined the child had said something important, but he’d failed to understand. Maybe she was asking him to take care of her doll for her, or was it something she needed him to do? For some inexplicable reason this bothered him. When the soldier turned away Franz quickly picked up the broken doll from the dirt and hid it in his trousers.
When he was able, he secretly worked on the broken doll, mending her shattered legs, repairing the torn dress, replacing her hair from a pile cut from the victims. He dyed the eyes, making them look like the eyes of the child, the same intense bright blue. Haunted by the child, Franz could not recall the words she’d whispered, and although she was only one of hundreds of thousands of Jews, whom he’d watched being led to the gas chambers, it was as if she held the voices of them all.
For two long years Franz survived in the death camp, although he was barely able to walk by the time the allies arrived to liberate them. He became one of many the Red Cross moved out to farms to await transport home, although there would be little left of his Warsaw to return to. The farmer allowed him to use the barn, but had no food to spare, with barely enough to feed his own family.
Broken in mind and spirit, Franz closed his eyes as he lay on his makeshift bed, but the only thing he could see was the face of the little girl with the doll. He could no longer bear hearing the cries of the hapless victims, grasping his head in an attempt to quiet them. He looked at the doll, the bright blue eyes followed him accusingly. Finding a length of rope he made a noose and hung it from a beam, placing the doll where he could see it. He climbed up into the hayloft, the rope around his neck.
Stepping closer to the edge, he stared down to where the doll sat looking up at him, daring him to jump.
He dropped, but the force wasn’t enough to finish the job and as the air left his body, he watched the wooden doll disintegrate before his bulging eyes. Her hair turned to dust, her dress crumbled and the crazy bright blue eyes rolled down the shattered face. In that moment he realised just what the girl had said.
Franz dangled on the end of the creaking rope, the wind whistled through the old barn and he was at peace at last.