A Nazi suffers from pangs of conscience after meeting a Jewish girl and her brother. pt 1
|It was 1933 when we took control of Germany. I was 23 years old at the time, and I felt like I was a member of a wonderful regime that would bring unity to our world. The Führer was, to me, like a god. My parents were so proud that I was a soldier in His army, and I resolved to do my best for Him, no matter the cost.
* * *
“Hans Muller!” the Generalmajor shouted. I stepped forward, knowing the drill.
“Yes, sir, Generalmajor!”
“You are to head the powers in Wiesbaden,” I was told by the stern officer. I nodded and stepped back into line.
Later that day, I fastened my red identification band around the sleeve of my uniform and looked at my reflection in the faded mirror on the opposite wall. My recently cut hair was lighter from being in the sun; there were blond highlights in the dark sandy tones. My uniform fit my frame well. I was not a tall man, but being broad through the shoulders helped dispel any ideas about me being a small man. My square jaw was held more rigid than I was used to. Must have been the officer training that did that to me. The most noticeable change in the five years since the Nazi’s took control was my eyes. There were lines by them that I did not remember seeing. Had it been that long since I had looked at myself in a mirror? The grey depths seemed to hide something that I had once seen there: maybe compassion. An officer’s eyes could not show his feelings, and I felt I did a fairly good job of hiding mine. I looked into those eyes once more, the windows to my soul. The lightly lashed grey orbs stared back, almost daring me to show some sign of care, of
love. I straightened my shoulders and turned to go out to my men.
There were one hundred of them, aged 21 to 35, ready to take residence in Wiesbaden. They all stood erect, at attention as they had been properly trained. I gazed on them with pride. “Fall in,” I commanded, leading the way to the cars and trucks that would take us to our new headquarters.
As we pulled in to Wiesbaden, I saw dark eyes staring at us from windows and doors, eyes filled with fear, some with blatant curiosity, others with defiance. These were the Jews I had heard so much about, but this was the first glimpse of them I had had. As we passed down the main street of the town, one could hear the whisperings of these people, wondering what the Nazis were
doing taking up residence there.
Our headquarters was a plain building, long and narrow, with bunkers at one end and the office at the other. The office was near the kitchen and on that hot afternoon the odor of stale meat and raw onions permeated the room. I knew better than to complain, however. After I dismissed my men to find their bunks and dispose of their belongings so they could get to work, I sat down at
the hard wooden desk and looked at the papers stacked before me. The chair creaked as I shifted my weight forward. I made a mental note to get that fixed and picked up the topmost notice. It was an order for the arrest of a Jewish physician and his son who worked at the local armory. Apparently they had committed some sort of political crime, but the paper did not go into detail. No matter, orders were orders and they must be carried out.
A knock at my partially closed door brought my head up with interest. “Come in.”
A young soldier with curly blond hair stepped into the small office. “Generalleutnant, sir,” he said softly.
“What is your name, son?” I asked the baby-faced kid before me, the paper in my hand forgotten for the time being.
“Jan Kimel,” the boy said, his bearing straight and tense as a good soldier’s should be. “I have found my bunk and am ready for a job.”
“Are you now?” I asked, my gaze drifting to the paper in my hand. I wrote the name and address of the men from the order on a scrap of paper. “These men have committed a crime against the government and must be arrested,” I told the lad, handing him the paper. “See to it.” I dismissed him with a wave of my hand. As the soldier left, the thought, one down, countless to go, flitted
through my brain.
* * *
The smell of the match burning after I lit the lamp later that evening seemed to cut the stench from past and present meals that lingered around my desk. I smiled at the thought of thousands of matches stuck around my office just to make it more bearable. After swallowing the remains of the sandwich a soldier had brought me for supper, I turned to the last sheet of paper on the desk. So many arrests, not all of them Jews, and many had been successfully carried out already that day. Jan Kimel was just bringing the physician and his son onto the grounds, loading them into the bus that would carry them to the station. I placed a checkmark next to the Jewish name on my
list and watched as the young soldier struggled with separating the father from his son. Finally, they separated at gunpoint, Jan at the other end of the machine gun.
“That boy will make a soldier yet,” I muttered, looking down at the sheet of paper that was left. An order to send a detachment of my men to a recently formed concentration camp: Buchenwald. They were needed to get the camp ready for new prisoners that would be arrested in a campaign that was slated to take place in just a couple of months. Things seemed to be progressing nicely
for our cause and I blew out my lamp with a feeling of satisfaction at a day’s work well done. I walked slowly to my bunk, stiff and tired from sitting at a desk all day, the roster of my men slowly panning through my brain as I tried to decide which men I could do without. I curled up on my bunk, my eyes heavy with sleep, and dozed, the decision half made already.
* * *
November 10, 1938 dawned as a chilly, rainy day. I looked out of the dirty glass near my bunk and scowled at the sky. Such an important day and it figured it would rain. I got out of bed and dressed quickly, knowing the others would be waking soon. I walked into the office and drank the bitter coffee left from the night before. Another glance out the window showed my men returning
from Buchenwald, ready for work. I stepped out into the misty rain to meet them.
“Generalleutnant, sir, all is ready for the new prisoners,” Jan Kimel said from his place at the front of the ranks. I smiled fondly at this boy-turned-soldier. All reports had stated how Kimel had come forward with leadership and discipline to lead the soldiers at Buchenwald. I nodded affirmation towards him and ordered the soldiers indoors to change into clean, dry uniforms and to get ready for the day. Kimel stayed behind to make sure all his men got uniforms and food before he did.
“Well done, soldier,” I said softly. Kimel turned his head, his baby face thinned out with work, his blue eyes hard like a soldier’s.
“Thank you, sir,” he said proudly, knowing how rarely compliments left my lips. I dismissed him to join his men indoors, myself staying out in the mist, looking down the quiet morning street. The peace that would soon be destroyed hung over all like a soft blanket, and I was a bit disturbed about removing that blanket. The feelings I was having startled me. A Nazi soldier is not supposed to feel for anyone, and yet here I was, feeling sorry for these people who were about to have their lives turned upside down. However, one of their numbers had committed too great of a crime for the Jews to not be punished. Vom Rath’s death yesterday had stirred up the powers that be, and I had my orders.
I stepped into the dining area where the soldiers were finishing the morning meal. They all snapped to attention when I entered the room, and I smiled in spite of myself. They were so well trained, and I knew today would be a great success for us. I stood on a chair so as to be seen by all in the room. Being short had its disadvantages.
“Attention everyone,” I said in my most commanding voice, “you have no doubt heard about the unfortunate murder of our Third Secretary at the German Embassy in Paris. This is a dark day of mourning for us, but it will be an even darker day for the Jews who must pay for this deed. I have my orders, here are yours. Oberst Kimel is handing out a list of names and addresses of Jews who must be arrested and shipped to Buchenwald today. Each name has been assigned to one of you. Do your job correctly, and you will be aptly rewarded. Fail, and you know what will happen,” I concluded softly. “Now, go, and report back as your jobs are completed.” I dismissed my men and stood erect as they passed by, giving the proper salute in response to theirs. After the last soldier had left the room, I stepped down from the chair, sitting down tiredly on it. I didn’t
understand why I was so tired when I had done nothing today.
“Sir?” Kimel stepped forward and handed me one of the sheets. I noticed that I had been assigned two names.
“Thank you, Jan,” I said, nodding his dismissal while perusing the sheet before me. I memorized the name and location of each of my prisoners and threw the sheet into the fire. I stepped outside and started down the street, gun in hand. It was still raining.
* * *
The shouts of Schnell, schnell, from my men, and Mein Gott, from the Jews surrounded me as I marched towards headquarters with my prisoners. They seemed to be cooperating, which was a nice change. We entered my office and I read them the list of questions which had been sent from my superior officer. It didn’t matter what they answered, the response on my part was still the same. “Please follow me,” as I loaded them onto the bus to go to the station. After closing the bus door and nodding at the guard on duty, I stepped toward the building with a grin. My job had been easy enough
* * *
As the sun set that evening, the reports had come in. All of the names on the list had been arrested and sent to Buchenwald. Some were calling the campaign Kristallnacht; I just called it success. My nose tingled with the smell of wood burning as the last of the synagogues were destroyed. I walked slowly down the main street of Wiesbaden, surveying the damage my men had done with the help of the German residents of the town. I nodded with pleasure, when
suddenly my eye caught movement to my immediate right. I froze, my head turning sharply towards the object. The moon glinted off a pair of dark eyes and I moved forward, ready to catch the hiding person.
“Please, do not harm us,” a soft voice pleaded as I approached.
“Come out,” I commanded, ignoring the prick that voice gave to my heart. A young girl stepped slowly from the shadows, her hand clasped tightly to the hand of a boy younger than she. The yellow six-pointed star shone dully on her breast, mirrored on the boy’s coat. Her dark hair was tangled and her thin face dirty. Her dress was threadbare and torn and the shoes on her small feet were almost worn through. Her companion’s wrists showed from the ends of his coat sleeves and his pants were patched on one knee. He held a dirty brown cap in his hand and his dark hair hung on his forehead. His black eyes were averted from my gaze, but hers held my look with a steady intensity. Her eyes—dark brown like liquid chocolate, luminous like the stars that were peeping through the dissipating clouds, framed by dark lashes and large enough to seem to fill
her entire face—those eyes met mine and never left my gaze.
Suddenly my mind raced backwards. I was ten years old and a student at the local German school. My best friend there was a little boy of eight named Joseph. He was a Jew, but I didn’t know it then. His big brown eyes would look at me with such trust and innocence as he followed me around the school yard. When I was thirteen, I was sent to military school and Joseph didn’t get to go. I never saw him again, and the only thing I have heard about him is that he was
one of the first Jews to be sent to a concentration camp in our campaign. I shook my head slowly, returning to the present.
“You are Jews, are you not?” I asked, not expecting an answer. I reached for my whistle to call for a guard, when a small hand touched my arm.
“Please, sir,” the girl pleaded, a tear escaping one of her eyes to make a path through the dirt on her cheek. “Help us… let us go.” Her voice was barely a whisper, and as she finished the statement, her bosom heaved with a deep sigh. A glance at that bosom told me that she was older than I had originally thought.
“But you are Jews,” I said softly. “Why should I let you go? You are hiding. Are you guilty of something to make you hide?”
“Our parents and brother have been arrested, I don’t even know why, and we have been in hiding for two months, afraid that you and your men would come after us. We don’t know what they have done, but please, just let us go so we may find them.” The girl’s hand was like fire on my arm, her eyes searching mine as if she could see into my soul’s curtained window.
“What is your name?” I asked, surprising myself with my hesitation to ship them to Buchenwald with the rest of the Jews.
“I am Margot Hirsch, and this is my brother Max,” she said haltingly. My eyebrows shot up in shock. Hirsch was the name of the physician that Kimel had arrested our first day in Wiesbaden. Had these children been hiding since then?
“I’m Hans Muller,” I further shocked myself by saying. Why was I interested in knowing this girl and her brother? They were Jews, “they were dogs”, and my job was to eradicate the place of their ilk. I shook my head at the wonder of it all and looked Margot over. “Where have you been staying?” I asked.
Margot looked at Max and shook her head, refusing to answer this simple question. “Sir, if you will just let us go, please, I promise, we will leave Germany.”
“I would let you go, but some other soldier would find you and he would not be so lenient on you,” I replied. “I… I want to help you. Come with me. I promise, no harm will come to you.” The two followed me through the back roads and the shadows to the headquarters in the center of the town. I snuck them into the office and locked the door. “I will return,” I promised before I left. “Do not open the door to anyone.” The last thing I saw before the door closed was Margot’s brave nod, her luminous eyes on mine.
“Oberst Kimel!” I called, walking through the barracks.
“Yes, Generalleutnant, sir?” the young officer answered from the bunk at my left.
“Come with me, Jan, I need to speak with you,” I said softly, leading him towards the dining hall at the center of the building. I knew it would be deserted at this time of night and I needed privacy for what I was about to do.
“Sit down, Jan,” I invited, motioning to a chair opposite the one I chose for myself. Kimel sat, his eyes alert and scanning my face. “Jan, I need you to do something for me.”
“Anything, sir,” he replied with a small smile.
“I have just received a post from my sister and I need to go to Eisenach and help her and her family move to Belgium. I may be gone for over a month. I would like for you to be in charge while I am away.” I watched his face as I shared this lie with him. “All you have to do is what the papers say. Your orders are sent straight from the top,” I explained.
Kimel nodded. “Yes, sir,” he said slowly. “What shall I tell anyone if they ask where you are?”
“A family emergency,” I answered. “But Jan, no one should ask unless they are from headquarters… and if you do your job correctly, questions will not get asked. Alright?”
Kimel nodded. “I understand, sir.”
“From now on, you will be Oberstleutnant Kimel. Go back to the bunker and I will leave the key on the office desk for you,” I told him, dismissing him and watching him leave. When I was sure he was gone, I entered the office. “Let’s go, quickly and quietly,” I told Margot and Max. The two Jews nodded. Margot reached innocently and trustingly for my hand and I led them to my private car, instructing them to hide in the back as we drove away.
* * *
I looked up at the moon. From its position I could tell it was around two o’clock in the morning. I had been driving for seven hours and I was exhausted. I heard no sounds from the backseat so I assumed the Jews were sleeping. A sudden movement behind the passenger seat told me I was mistaken. Margot poked her head over the car seat.
“Max is sleeping and I do not want to disturb him. May I sit up there with you so that we may talk?” she asked in her musical voice.
“Come,” I nodded, motioning to the floor in front of the passenger seat. I tried not to watch as she crawled over the seat and seated herself in the floor, a dark shawl around her head.
“Thank you,” she smiled, her large eyes on my face. I nodded and continued to drive, still not sure of where I was taking them. We drove in silence for about five kilometers when I turned to her.
“You wanted to talk. So talk,” I said, more harshly than I intended to.
“Oh, I just wanted to get to know you,” she answered haltingly. “Where are you from?”
I looked at this Jewish girl in disbelief. A Jew wanting to get to know a Nazi officer? This had to be a first. “Alright, I was born in Eisenach,” I replied to her question.
“Have you lived there all your life?” she asked, her eyes still trained on mine.
I nodded. “Until I was thirteen, and then I went to Frankfurt to attend military school.”
“Why did you become a Nazi?”
Her eyes were beginning to make me tingle. “Well, for someone who has trained to be a soldier, the best place to use that training is the army. And the only army is the Nazi army.”
“Surely there had to be a higher calling for you than destruction and hate,” Margot said, resting her small chin in her hand. “Before you went to train for a soldier, was there anything or anyone you loved?”
I glanced down at her, so innocent, and yet reaching into the recesses of my heart to draw out what was hidden there. I knew I could be honest with her, and yet everything inside me told me to stay quiet and tell her nothing. So far in this situation I had gone totally against every bit of my
training, so what would telling her the truth be?
“When I was in school in Eisenach, my best friend there was a little boy a couple years younger than me named Joseph. I loved him… I loved my parents and my sister. But I am a man now, not a child. You have to understand, Margot, the world once we grow up is not the way it is when we are children. There are choices to make, causes to fight for.” I sighed deeply, knowing she would not understand, and wondering why I cared if she did.
She seemed to ponder this for a moment as we drove once again in silence. “Why must you fight?” she finally asked, her liquid eyes for once on the stars and not my face.
I thought about this. Why must I fight? It was so ingrained in my head that it was necessary; I didn’t remember a time when I had felt it was a choice. “Margot,” I began tentatively, “there comes a time in every man’s life when he must decide what is worth his time and effort. A good cause is worth more than that, don’t you agree?”
“A good cause?” she asked, her back stiffening. “You call killing innocent people and causing those around you to suffer a good cause?” A tear escaped from her eye and traced a path down her cheek. “You think you are so evolved, so smart. You just follow along with whatever the people above you say with no thought to your own morals or feelings. You are not evolved. You are just like a sheep following a poor shepherd.” She then turned her back and watched the stars as we traveled down the long road.
We drove like this in silence for about ten kilometers. The silence was deafening, but the loss of eye contact with her was the most disturbing. “So, you’ve heard about me. Let’s talk about you,” I ventured, hoping for a positive reaction.
She turned her head. “What about me?” she asked warily.
“Have you lived in Wiesbaden all your life?”
She nodded and turned back to face me, those eyes finding mine once more. “My parents moved there a year or two before I was born. They came from Frankfurt. My father said there were more patients willing to see a Jewish doctor in Wiesbaden. Max and I were born there. My older brother, Peter, was born in Frankfurt.”
“So… tell me about growing up in your family,” I said softly. “What was it like being a Jew in Germany?”
“Being a Jew still does not make me any different than you,” she said, avoiding my original question for the time being. “I am a German. I was born in Germany. I have lived here all my life. What makes me so different from you other than my beliefs and my coloring?”
“Being born in Germany does not automatically make you German,” I retorted, my eyes on the road before me. “If a cat has kittens in a stable are her kittens called horses? No, they are still cats. You have Jewish blood. Therefore, you are a Jew, not a German.”
“But the blood that runs through my veins does not change the fact that I am a human being. All Jews are human beings. Why do you treat us like dogs?”
I groaned inwardly. “I’m not treating you like a dog. I am helping you, and your brother I might add. So, be grateful and stop treating me like I am your enemy.”
Silence fell again.
* * *
As the sun began to peep over the horizon, I knew I needed to get Margot into the back seat with Max. But she was curled up asleep on the front seat next to me, her head on my leg. I pulled off the road into a gravel drive, hoping we wouldn’t get discovered. We had been lucky thus far, but I did not know what the day held in store.
“Margot?” I said softly, stroking her dark hair gently to wake her.
She raised her head and blinked her large eyes sleepily. “Where are we now, Herr Muller?” she asked, her voice thick with drowsiness.
“Near the Belgian border,” I answered. “I need you to get back under the blanket with Max before we can go any further.”
She nodded and smiled a half smile at me before she crawled back into the backseat and disappeared under the thick blanket. I waited until she was still before I backed out of the drive and continued on my way to Belgium. It was the only place I could think of to hide them, but we would have to go far into the country, away from the German borders. Antwerp seemed the most logical place to take them, possibly to my family’s abandoned country house near the city. I headed across the border after the identification check and the making and returning of salutes. Being an officer in the Nazi army sure had its advantages.
“Margot, in about half an hour you may come back up here if you desire,” I said quietly to the blanket in the back.
“Thank you,” came the muffled reply. I smiled at the thought of her company again, and wondered why her voice and her face haunted my every thought. Her eyes seemed a constant companion to me, even when out of my own sight. What about this Jew was so appealing to me?
Later, as we approached Hasselt, I felt the threat of German discovery had dissipated. “Margot? Are you awake?” I asked tentatively.
Her head poked out from under the blanket, her dark hair unruly around her heart-shaped face. “I am, and so is Max,” she said with a smile. “Want me to come up there and talk, or are you enjoying the silence?”
“Come up here,” I said, feeling like I was giving an order, but wanting it to seem a request.
She threw the blanket off her and her brother and climbed over the seat, this time seating herself next to me instead of in the floor.
“Good morning, Max,” I said to the sleepy boy in the backseat. He didn’t answer.
“Don’t mind Max. He’s not much of a talker. I guess he didn’t have to be with a sister like me,” Margot laughed. She untied her scarf from around her shoulders and covered her dark head with it once more. “Where are we going?” she asked, training those large brown eyes on me yet again.
“Antwerp,” I answered, a tingle running up my spine from her gaze. How could the gaze of a mere child make me feel these feelings?
“Antwerp,” she repeated softly, her musical voice making the name sound like poetry. “Have we some place to stay there?”
“My family has a country house there. Maybe we can use that.”
“Will you be staying with us?” she asked, her voice more hopeful that I would have expected.
“I can’t. I must return to my post.” I looked over at her, the disappointment mingled with fear apparent in her eyes. “You mustn’t be afraid though. You will be safe. I will do my best to make sure of that.”
She sighed softly, casting her eyes down to the small hands that were resting in her lap. “How old are you, Hans?” she asked suddenly, her eyes still not on my face.
“I am twenty eight years old,” I answered, raising an eyebrow in surprise.
“I am eighteen. Max recently turned fourteen.”
Eighteen? I had thought her a child, and here she was, a woman. Older than my sister when she was married, older than I when I thought myself a man. I looked at her, seeing her in a new light. She looked up, her dark eyes meeting mine, her full lips curling in a smile.
“You thought I was younger,” she said, not a question.
I nodded, a wry grin crossing my lips.
“And yet, something inside you knew I was an adult, not a child.”
How could this woman-child know me so well in so short a time? I pulled the car over, reaching into the backseat for my knapsack.
“Here,” I said, handing each of them some bread and cheese. “I know you have to be hungry.”
Her eyes told me thank you as she bit into her makeshift breakfast. I smiled and then stepped out of the car to stretch my legs a bit. I had been sitting for a long time. I also needed a break from her all-knowing gaze.
* * *
We pulled into the long drive at the country house outside Antwerp some time later. Throughout the course of our trip, Margot had kept up a steady stream of conversation. I found that she was very educated in many areas: arts, literature, religion, and most notably, German history. She made for a wonderful conversationalist and kept the trip from seeming too long. While talking with
her, I could almost forget that she was a Jew, a hated member of society that I wanted to flush out.
As we approached the house, it was dark and quiet. “You two stay here while I go make sure no one is inside,” I told my two dark-haired companions. Without waiting for affirmation from them, I slid silently from the car and made my way around the house. It seemed deserted, but one could never be too careful. I opened the front door with my key and took a precautionary tour through the dark rooms. A few moments later I looked out of the front door and motioned for Margot and Max to join me inside.
They entered the house slowly, not accustomed to such quiet and peaceful surroundings. Max held the blanket from the backseat and Margot carried my knapsack.
“You should be safe here,” I informed them. “We have not occupied Belgium yet, and I am not sure if we are going to. I will stay here with you for a little while to get you accustomed to the house and the grounds. Also, going into town for food and things should not be a problem.”
Margot nodded, her eyes on me the whole time. Max was wandering slowly around the room, looking at the various pieces of furniture and the artwork on the walls. “How long will you stay with us?” Margot asked, stepping closer to me.
“As long as I am needed,” I reassured her, feeling myself growing warm in her close presence.
* * *
I couldn’t believe I had been here with these two Jews for a week already. Margot had been introduced to the town so she could do whatever shopping was needed and Max was keeping busy around the house, exploring and helping when asked. I knew I should leave them and get back to my post, but I was hesitant. I wondered if anything had been said in the upper brass about invading Belgium.
“Margot?” I called, knowing she was in the kitchen, but wanting her in the sitting room with me.
She entered the room, wiping her hands on a dish towel, her dark hair pulled back from her face making her sparkling eyes more noticeable. “Yes, Hans?” she asked, seating herself on the settee next to me.
“I need to go back to Germany. Will you be alright for a while?”
She nodded slowly, the sparkle in her eyes immediately snuffed out. “Yes, we have enough food and things,” she began tentatively. “But… what if…?”
“No worries. If I hear of something happening, I will be here before the army gets here.” My heartbeat quickened at this hollow promise. How could I know if I would hear about it before it happened?
* * *
“Generalleutnant Muller,” the border guard addressed me. I nodded in acknowledgement, wondering why I was being addressed and not just waved through. “I have been ordered to give this to you, sir,” the guard said, handing me a sealed paper.
“Danke,” I muttered, driving through and parking on the German side of the border. I opened the paper and read the typed message:
Generalleutnant Hans Muller:
Kimel now has full command of the Wiesbaden post. You are to report to the
nearest SS office to get your new assignment.
“SS?” I murmured. “This is unexpected.” I folded the paper and put it in my pocket, pulling back out on the road. The nearest office to where I crossed the border was Düsseldorf, so I decided I ought to head there.
I arrived at the SS office after lunch. There were only a few black-uniformed officers around, but I knew who to look for. I walked into the small building, ignoring the looks from the SS men by the door, and went to the back office.
“Ah, Muller,” the small blonde man behind the desk smiled. “We have been expecting you.”
“What’s going on, Heydrich?” I asked, surprised to see the second most powerful SS leader in that office.
Reinhard Heydrich stood. “Now, Hans, may I call you Hans? You forget your manners.”
I rolled my eyes at this. “I received my order from Reichtsführer Himmler,” I said through gritted teeth. “But I am not a member of the SS. How could you give me my next assignment?”
Heydrich laughed, coming around the desk and placing his arm around my shoulders. “The Führer needs men like you in the SS,” he said silkily. “We would like for you to join us.”
I knew that a request like this would have to be accepted or I would be signing my own death warrant. “I am… honored,” I said slowly, forcing a smile for the officer beside me. “What do I need to do now?”
“We have already procured a uniform for you, and you will be sent to Buchenwald as a guard for the time being.” Heydrich motioned me to the side room off the office and I entered it cautiously. There was a black SS uniform all laid out for me. I closed the door to the room and removed my army uniform, picking up the black coat with distaste. I had never wanted to be a member of the SS. The army was enough for me. But apparently, someone higher up wanted me here, so here I was.
I stepped out into the office, dressed in the hated black uniform. Heydrich smiled an evil smile. “Wonderful,” he exclaimed, clapping his hands together one time. “You may keep your personal car, and report immediately to Buchenwald.”
I nodded and walked out to my vehicle, my steps leaden. How was I supposed to face Margot now? Now I was a member of that arm of the Nazi party that was responsible for the majority of Jewish deaths in this campaign. I leaned against the car door and closed my eyes briefly. Margot’s eyes loomed before me in my mind, accusing me at the same time as trusting me to do the right thing.
“Hans?” Heydrich’s voice brought me from my reverie. “You will need this letter to give to the captain in charge at the camp.” He handed me a sealed paper and patted my shoulder. “Heil Hitler!” he said, raising his hand.
I returned the salute and got in my car, my course already mapped for me. I turned down the road that would take me to Buchenwald, and to my own personal hell.
* * *
Buchenwald Concentration Camp was quiet when I arrived that evening. I parked my car next to the officers’ building and entered a candlelit room.
“Are you Muller?” a voice said from the shadows behind the candles’ glow.
I nodded, standing at attention so as not to call attention to my lack of enthusiasm about being there.
“Sit down,” the voice instructed me. I sat in the nearest seat and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Finally I was able to distinguish a figure belonging to the voice I had heard.
“I am Gunter Heinz,” the man introduced himself. “I am in charge here. The Reichtsführer informed me you would be arriving today. I will give you your assignment in the morning.” He motioned to the table before him. “Hungry?”
“Thank you,” I murmured, filling a plate with the food on the table. I sat closer to Heinz and began to eat, studying my new superior. He was a fat man with greasy dark blonde hair and a large nose. His mouth was small and mean-looking and his eyes were wide set and narrow. Already I did not like the looks of him, but I had to be respectful nonetheless.
“Good food, eh?” he asked in his gravelly voice. I nodded, not speaking seeming to be to my advantage in this situation. “Too bad the Jews here don’t get fed this well. We might get more work out of them, right?” Heinz laughed, his laughter sounding like a smoker’s cough.
I did not laugh at this, thinking of Margot and Max and hoping they were getting enough food. I placed my half-filled plate on the table.
“Finished already?” Heinz asked in surprise. “You eat less than those damned Jews.” He studied me with those beady eyes and then stood, his bulk seeming to pull him up on its own. “I’ll show you to your bunker.”
I followed the black uniformed man to a long wooden building near the officers’ building. We entered through a red painted door facing the work yard. “Find a bed here and come see me in the morning,” Heinz said before leaving, shutting the red door behind him.
I took the bed nearest me that was empty, ignoring the looks from the other men there. Obviously they were guards as well, but it was hard to be sure seeing them without their uniforms on. I undressed quickly and got into bed, closing my eyes and thinking of Margot as I fell asleep.
* * *
The sun streaming through the window near my bunk woke me every morning. I loved that little window. Through it, one could only see the sky when lying on the bed. No camp, no workers, no guards, just sky. I stretched in the sun’s warmth and then stood to dress for my day at the labor field. My assignment from day one had been to keep the guards at the labor field in check. Not a hard job, but not an exciting one either. It gave me too much time to think as I stood and watched the Jewish prisoners working, some not fast enough, others with fervor. I often thought of Margot, wondering what she was doing, when I was to see her again, if she even wanted to see me.
I scanned the group of men closest to me in the labor yard, their striped backs bent over their work. One man looked up and made eye contact with me before returning his gaze to the ground in front of him. My eyes widened. His eyes, dark like all the other Jews’, had looked familiar to me. I stared at the man, willing him to look at me again. He did not. I memorized his worker number
from his prisoner uniform and made a mental note to check on the name of the prisoner before supper tonight.
* * *
Hirsch, Israel, former Jude physician, now rock cutter, arrested August 1938, transferred from Mauthausen, November 1938.
“Hirsch?” I whispered, reading the lines again. “Margot’s father!” I sat in stunned silence for a few moments, caught off guard by the fact that he was still alive, and under my nose. I closed the name book and went to the bunker, needing to be alone and think. Margot’s father had been alive all this time. I wondered if her brother was here. I hadn’t seen his name on the list of inmates, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t registered under a false identity. The only way to truly find out would be to ask Dr. Hirsch, and that was out of the question if I wanted to keep the both of us alive. Something Margot had said when I first met her rang in my ears again. “Our parents and brother have been arrested.” Parents? Meaning both of them? I hadn’t remembered her mother being
on my list back in the summer, but maybe she was on someone else’s. I wondered where Mrs. Hirsch was now.
* * *
January 1, 1939 was a cold day at the labor field. I watched the prisoners shiver as they tried to work, many of them with less than substantial clothes to protect them from the elements. I had noticed over the last couple of months that Dr. Hirsch had been placing himself in closer and closer proximity to me. I wished that I would have the opportunity to talk to him, to tell him his children were being taken care of, to ask where his oldest son and his wife were, if he even knew. But I knew that would mean death for both of us, and I had to stay alive for Margot.
While my mind was wandering towards Antwerp, wishing my body could travel with it, Commandant Heinz walked out of the officers’ building and made a beeline for me.
“Muller!” he called. “Post for you!”
I shook my head and walked to him, saving him the trip and the exhaustion that would surely accompany it. As I approached him, I noticed that the fat man was already wheezing with the effort of coming partly down the hill to the labor field.
“Thank you,” I said, taking the envelope from his thick fingers. As he turned away, I tore open the envelope, the return address having no name, but recognizable anyway. How did Margot get a letter to me? I stood in the lightly falling snow that had just begun and read her words.
Things are fine here. Max has expressed interest in beginning school in the city, but I am just not sure if that is a good idea. He only has one year of schooling left, and I know he could finish it here, but what if things do not go as planned? I wonder if you have heard anything that could make our situation at all perilous. Do you even think about us at all?
I have been thinking of you a lot lately. It seems as though Jehovah himself sent you to us. I cannot get your grey eyes or your smile out of my mind, and it is my constant source of courage and strength. Hans, I think I am falling in love with you. Crazy, isn’t it? On the cold nights here in the house, I wish for you and your warm laughter to make things cozy. I want to know what it feels like to be in your arms. I know that this is wishful thinking, but I cannot help the way I feel.
I have found a job in the city as a seamstress assistant. It is a good thing that my mother taught me a little about sewing. So, we are fine as far as money goes. It doesn’t pay extremely well, but it is enough to keep food on the table and a fire on the hearth. I bought Max and I each a new coat and new shoes. It gets so cold here, even when the sun is shining. I hope the sun is shining on you. Please do tell me where you are if you can and let me know you are safe. I miss you.
I reread the middle paragraph, tears pricking at my eyelids. She loved me? Somehow that knowledge felt like a gift. A woman as wonderfully sweet and kind and giving as Margot was in love with me. I folded the letter and slipped it into my pocket, returning to my spot at the field. Dr. Hirsch looked up at that moment and smiled at me, the first smile I had seen on a Jewish face
since I left Margot and Max in Belgium. I smiled back at this man, the father of one of the greatest women I had ever met.
* * *
I can’t tell you where I am, but I am well. I was pleased to receive your letter. It is good to know that you and Max are well. I do not think it would be a terrible thing were Max to begin school there. He would do well to finish his education. I am happy to hear that you have found yourself a job. Maybe you will not get too lonely or bored with something to do. I am sending you some money anyway, even if you are working. I promised you I would take care of you, and I intend to keep that promise.
Your letter surprised me. I had never thought to win your love, especially not so soon. You ask if I ever think of you. I cannot get your face, your eyes, your voice out of my head. Maybe that is a sign that I am falling in love with you as well. It is hard to be sure. All I know is I want to see you
again, soon, but I am not sure if I can get away from my post long enough to make the trip. I promise to see you as soon as I can, however.
I have finally met your father. I cannot tell you how or when, such matters being confidential, but I will let you know that he is as well as can be expected and I intend that he should stay that way until you can be reunited with him again.
I hope to hear from you soon. Write me in care of the SS Office in Düsseldorf and I am sure it will get to me, wherever I may be.
I sealed the letter, hoping it would be received by her and not held up by the authorities. I had read and reread it to make sure nothing incriminating for either of us was mentioned. I could only hope that the mention of her father would bring her some peace of mind.
* * *
My boots crunched on the still frozen ground as I walked out of the long bunker at Buchenwald for what I hoped was the last time. It was March, but it still felt like February outside. I went by the labor field to check on things once more before I left to go to Czechoslovakia with the army. Finally I was getting to do what I had been trained to do, be a soldier. The only difference is I was not going to be an active member of the army, but one of the SS following to make sure the job got done correctly. No matter, I was still getting to do what I enjoyed. Dr. Hirsch was not in the field today and I hoped he was not sick. I could not ask though; an SS guard was not supposed to notice individual prisoners. I said goodbye to my men and went to the officers’ building to take my official leave.
As I entered the dark building, the first thing I saw was Heinz in the corner with a dark haired man bending over him. As my eyes adjusted to the low light, I noticed that the man was wearing the striped uniform of a camp prisoner. I reached for my gun when Heinz spoke.
“Ah, Muller. Ready to leave us are you?” he asked in a hoarse voice.
“Yes, sir,” I said slowly, finally recognizing the Jew that occupied the room with us. It was Dr. Hirsch.
“Do not mind the good doctor here. I have the flu or something and he is the only physician close by, so, there you have it,” Heinz laughed, then wheezed.
Dr. Hirsch turned and looked at me, his eyes too much like his daughter’s. He turned back to my fat commander. “Rest, and you should be better in less than a week,” he said in low tones. It was the first time I had heard him speak. He stood and walked towards the door, ready to return to his labor at the field.
“May I have a word with the doctor before he returns to the camp?” I asked suddenly, trying to keep the excitement out of my voice. Heinz nodded and waved me away.
Dr. Hirsch obviously heard my request, for he stopped and looked at me expectantly. I stepped to him and moved him closer to the door. “I just wanted to ask about Commandant Heinz’s condition,” I said in a loud voice to diffuse suspicion. Once we were out of Heinz’s earshot, I looked at the Jew in front of me, my face softening to one of compassion. “Dr. Hirsch,” I said
“You know my name?” he answered in surprise.
I nodded. “I know your daughter Margot and your son Max as well. They are safe, in Belgium.”
“Thank God,” the doctor breathed, his eyes toward the ceiling. “How do you know this? You are the enemy.”
“I’m not.” I looked around cautiously before I continued. “I met Margot and Max in November and agreed to help them. Since then, I have fallen in love with your daughter. I am going to do everything in my power to keep her safe. I do not know if I can help you, but…”
“Just keep the children safe,” Dr. Hirsch interrupted, his eyes pleading with me. “I can die happy as long as I know my children are taken care of.”
I nodded. “I promise.”
He left and returned to the labor yard and I moved towards the Commandant.
“Well, was the old fool right? Am I going to live?” Heinz asked, his voice weaker than I had ever heard it before.
“He affirmed what he had told you,” I said, seating myself next to him. “But you have to rest. And perhaps you should get the doctor to come back and look at you from time to time.”
“Just what I need,” he coughed. “A Jewish physician.” He looked me over. “So, are you ready to go?”
I nodded. “I must leave soon. I am supposed to be meeting with a group of officers in Berlin soon.”
“Good luck to you. Give those damned Jews the end they deserve,” Heinz grinned evilly.
I stood and shook his hand, walking to the door. I got in my car and drove to Berlin, not knowing what to expect when I got there.