October 4, 1961

October 4, 1961

A Chapter by Kris St. James

October 4, 1961

 

Gerald parked his car in the lot.  Checking his watch, a grin slid across face.  If I hurry, I’ll make it home in time to catch the Yankees game.  The television broadcast would start in an hour, giving him enough time to wrap things up at work, grab a quick bite to eat, and set up with a cold bottle of Coca-Cola in his favorite chair before the first pitch was tossed.  What had started so many years ago as a way to fit in with the locals had become an avid fascination.

All I need now is a mom and an apple pie and I will be complete.

Someday he might even reach the point where he believed it.

Gerald reached for the parking brake and pulled it down before grabbing his briefcase from the backseat.  The heavy case tilted him to the left in compensation, but there was determination in his step as he walked toward the office entrance. The briefcase contained hundreds of work permits and architectural drawings for the new Space Needle his company had been constructing since April for the World’s Fair in Seattle next year.

Gerald walked into the building, passing people he’d known for several years, but they all seemed to look at him differently.  Stepping into the dispatch office, the receptionist waived and called him over.  The girl was a ditzy blond with an out of date Veronica Lake hairstyle.  He couldn’t stand her. 

“What?” he grated, already upset.  He had nearly lost the old accent.  Every second she spent wasting his time would make getting home in time for the game that much more difficult.

“Mr.  Matheny needs to see you,” she said.

“Fine,” he said, angry at the delay.  “I’ll log in my progress notes and be right back.”

“He said to send you right in.”

“Is it urgent?” He shifted the briefcase and slid his jacket sleeve up just enough to check the time.

“Dunno,” she said, twirling a wisp of her hair.  “He wanted you to report to him immediately, though.”

Gerald shrugged.  Yankees game or not, it wasn’t like you could ignore a Vice President’s request.  Looking for an empty spot, he set the briefcase in the corner and headed toward Matheny’s door.  He slipped his jacket off before knocking and going in.

Matheny, dressed in a gray suit with a thin red tie, had a file open on his desk.  The balding, middle-aged executive glanced up when the door opened and motioned for Gerald to come forward.  Sighing, he closed the file and slid it to the side.  Gerald could see his name written across the top.

“There were a man here earlier, government type, asking about you,” Matheny said.

Could it be? wondered Gerald.  It’s been so long.

Gerald Shorter tried to hide the tremor of fear gripping his spine from showing on his face.  Half turning, he tossed his jacket on the chair and rolled up his sleeves while he composed himself.  By the time he looked back at Matheny’s face, he had regained control.

“Really?” he asked.  “Did I screw up my taxes or something?”

Matheny tented his fingers in front of his face and seemed to struggle with what to say.  “You best sit down, Gerald.”

“Okay,” he complied, dropping into the chair holding his coat, “but you’ve got me worried.  Somebody die?”

“I’m not supposed to say anything, but…” 

Gerald felt the old anger welling up.  Just say it!

“Ah…” started Matheny, his eyes drifting to Gerald’s exposed forearm and the numbers tattooed above the beautiful Bulova.  Self conscious, Gerald crossed his arms to hide them.

“This is going to seem really foolish considering the evidence,” said Matheny, “but the government thinks you might be a Nazi.”

Gerald’s face tightened.  Thin lipped, he remained silent as a red blush of anger spread over his face.  It wasn’t an act; he was angry.  Not about the accusation�"he had successfully evaded this for many years and was confident he would do so yet again.  He was angry because he would miss the opening of the game. He had placed a rather hefty bet on it.  However, he hoped Matheny couldn’t tell the difference.

“I know this is preposterous,” said Matheny.  “Tried to tell them over and over, but the guy has some kind of thing for you.  He said people called you, ‘The Butcher.’”

Gerald finally spoke, forcing himself to keep his tone even.  “Won’t you get in trouble for telling me this?”

“Only if you tell them about it, but I can’t see you doing that.”

“I won’t,” he promised.

“Good,” nodded Matheny.  “You’ve been a good employee here.  I didn’t want you to get blindsided by this baloney.  You people have been through enough already.”

You people.  The thought struck Gerald as humorous.  He’d been able to fool so many people, but someone out there hadn’t believed his lies.  He needed to figure out what the government’s plans were.  “I suppose they’re waiting for me in the parking lot?”

Matheny shook his head.  “Didn’t say, but there was only one of them and I saw the car drive out of the lot.  I’d guess he has to get more people together before confronting you.  Maybe the sheriff.”

“Then I might have enough time to contact a lawyer.  Can I take the rest of the week off to get everything in order?”

“Sure,” said Matheny agreeably.  He pulled a business card out of his desk, flipped it over, and scribbled a name and number on the back.  He slid it across his desk to Gerald.  “This is my attorney.  He may not be an expert in immigration issues, but he’s a crackerjack when it comes to false accusations.  Got me out of a tight libel situation couple of years back.  Call him.”

Gerald accepted the card, slipped on his jacket and put the card into his pocket. He turned toward Matheny as he reached the door.  “Thanks, boss.  I’ll need all the help I can get.”

* * *

 

Gerald Shorter gripped the door handle of the house and yanked it open, walked inside and slammed behind him.  Shutting out the world, he leaned his back against the door and ran a nervous hand over his head.

What am I going to do?

He can’t stay, he knows that, but there’s nowhere to go.  He has too much to lose.  Nobody should have been able to find him this long after the war, not after all he’d been able to accomplish.  He dug his fists into his eyes.

I have to get out of here.

Beyond that recognition he had no idea what to do, but the thought is enough to spur him to action.  The house is no longer safe.  He’ll have to figure out a plan while on the road to…somewhere.

Gerald raced to the bed and pulled his suitcase from underneath.  In a rush, he threw open drawers and pulled out the essentials, tossing them into his suitcase.  His old sense of military order is ignored as he tossed socks, underwear, and shirts haphazardly.  At the third drawer, though, he stops, staring at a Hawaiian print shirt he’d picked up in New York so many years ago.  It allowed him to tell great travel stories that helped him to fit in…all of which were as fake as he.  The center of the shirt bulged. 

Gerald reached his hand under the shirt and pulled out the Luger.  The weight felt good.  Flicking the slide with his thumb, he dropped the magazine into his left hand to confirm it was loaded.  Satisfied, he slapped it back into the weapon and chambered a round before sliding the Luger into his belt.

Feeling better now that the gun’s heft could pass on its deadly reassurance, Gerald continued packing the suitcase.  He worried about how much time he would have and continually checked out the window to see if anyone was driving down the extended farm lane.

The road was empty.

A robin darted past the window, drawing his eyes toward the motion.  The bird swooped up and came to rest on a fir tree’s lower branch…it was the same tree he’d buried the box beneath.  Gerald stood there in his bedroom, one hand about to lock the suitcase, ready to go to ground, but he couldn’t take his eyes away from the window.  He stared at the thick grass that grew where he’d dug the hole to hide the evidence years ago.  It looked just like every other part of the yard, but it was so much more.  His past lay hidden under the carpet of green.  He’d thought burying it would remove all the traces to his old life; that he would be free of his past forever.  He was wrong. 

Within the carpet of green rose a thin stem that stood taller than the rest.  He stared, at first taking it for an encroaching piece of crab crass, but the stalk was too thick for that.  An oval object at the top confirmed its real purpose.  The irony mocked him; it was a flower.  There, sprouting from the ground where he’d buried the death of his past was…new life. 

As the sun descended, Gerald tried to think of any options he might have overlooked.  What evidence did they have?  Photographs?  Witnesses?  He had moved so often during the early years, yet somehow they had continued the pursuit.  He mentally kicked himself for not being more careful, but some part of his mind always knew this day would come.  Besides, hadn’t he proved himself to be a good person?  He had overcome his alcoholism; had sponsored several others through the AA; had built a magnificent home and was essentially the man responsible for building the Space Needle�"the crown jewel of the World’s Fair next year.  His hard work couldn’t be for nothing.  No, he wouldn’t run.  He was done with running.  He would plead his case, if it came to that.  His work would speak for itself.

As Gerald looked through the dark glass, a wave of exhaustion overtook him.  He had worked especially hard today and was so looking forward to the ballgame.  He latched the suitcase, set it on the floor and made his way through the kitchen.  He took a bottle of Coke from the refrigerator, fumbled through a drawer for a bottle opener, and popped the top.  Seconds later the glow of the television bathed the dark den in dim light as the bottom of the first inning was beginning.  Gerald fished the Zippo from his pocket and lit a cigarette.  He’d missed the opening of the World Series, the “Yanks” against the “Reds”�"an irony not lost on Gerald.  The so-called “Cold War” with the Russians was an effective distraction from what had happened during the 40’s, and the Korean War in the early 50’s would soon be ten years old.  Surely everyone had forgotten about the defeated Nazis.

At the end of the game, Gerald’s team had prevailed, 2-0.  Whitey Ford pitched his third straight World Series shutout.  It was a sign, he was convinced.  He had won two hundred dollars on the opener and decided he would donate his winnings to a charity.  That would certainly help him build his case, if it came to that.  Gerald continued watching the late news and then a Jimmy Cagney movie until he drifted off to sleep in the chair.

 

* * *

 

Gerhardt lay in his bunk as the first fingers of morning light poked their way through the shades covering the SS barracks windows.  He hadn’t slept all night as his eyes searched the cracks in the wooden ceiling in hopes of finding another way out of his predicament, but he couldn’t see any other solution.  An uneasy feeling clutched his stomach.  Pulling back the mattress, he stared at the rings and gold fillings The Butcher had taken from the jaws of the dead.  His mind was made; he’d crossed the mental Rubicon and there was no turning back. 

He wanted a drink.

Sergeant Guderian, who’d pulled the late night watch, snorted behind him before resuming his normal bone-jarring snoring.  The grating sound had so annoyed Gerhardt when he’d first been assigned to Ravensbrück.  Now he didn’t care.  An grating snore was the least of his worries.  Today was his designated travel day, a time for new beginnings…but not at another arbeitslager as his transfer papers stated.  He was going A.W.O.L.

No, he thought, rolling onto his side in hopes of quelling the nausea, it’s far more than that.  I’m going to defect, become a traitor to the Fatherland. Merely thinking the words made his stomach sour.  He tried to push the anxiety away by rationalizing.  You can’t be a traitor to a country that no longer exists.

And there it was, the simple truth allowing him the freedom to go ahead with his plan.  Once Nazi Germany fell, which he figured couldn’t be very far off, he’d no longer be a traitor.  The time to act was now, before the Americans and Russians swarmed over his country like ants at a picnic.  His choice wasn’t whether or not to remain loyal to Germany, but to decide between being a fugitive refugee or an Allied prisoner who would be tried for war crimes. 

Sliding his legs out of bed, Gerhardt got up and padded across the room.  It didn’t take him long to get ready.  It was Easter Sunday, 1945, and he wanted to catch the morning shift of laborers.  Before going out, though, he assembled his duffel bag with all his gear, setting it at the foot of the bed so it was ready to go.  He made sure to hide Rachel’s box and a small jewelry box containing the gold near the middle, covering both with clothing and other kit.  He put a silver vodka flask on the top. 

If ever there had been a miracle, it was the discovery of this box lying in the snow.  Prisoner A27364…no, Rachel Levine, was forever burned into his mind.  If he dropped the bag he didn’t want the Jew box or the gold tumbling out into the open.  It might be a little hard to explain.  His boots stepped hollowly across the plank floor as he opened the door and slipped out.  Guderian’s snore continued uninterrupted.

This first day of April was brisk as he stepped outside; a cold breeze slithered into his collar and bit.  Another freak springtime snow had fallen overnight, blanketing the parade ground with a layer of white.  It also brought a very brief reprieve in the bombing.  He pulled his greatcoat collar up in an attempt to lessen the effect of wind, but he still shivered; a marked difference to the heated barracks and warm bed he’d just left. 

All Fool’s day, indeed, he thought bitterly.

Gerhardt saw three prisoners coming out of one of the women’s barracks, each wearing the gold triangle assigned to Jewish prisoners.  They were huddled together as they moved, like cows in a field, trying to use their combined body heat to fend off the cold.  He doubted their thin camp garments were much better than being naked.  Gerhardt marched toward the women, evaluating each as he approached.  They kept their heads turned and eyes downcast, clearly trying to avoid drawing attention.  It didn’t work.

“You there!” he commanded.  “Up against the wall!”

Each looked in his direction then scanned the parade ground as if hoping he was speaking to someone else.

NOW!” he shouted, removing any doubt.

The three women scurried against the barracks wall, their chests heaving, their eyes filled with terror. 

Gerhardt leveled his gaze.  “Which of you is a good Jew?”

The three women exchanged looks but remained silent.  Gerhardt reached for his pistol.  All three started chattering at once, each trying to outdo the others in answering. 

“Shut up!” he shouted.  He looked at the one on the left, a medium height girl who’d probably been full figured at one time.  Her breasts sagged emptily while her bones protruded from tightly stretched skin.  Hollow brown eyes sat hungrily in black-rimmed sockets.  He could tell she didn’t have long to live and figured she would be the least afraid of him.  With little to lose, she wouldn’t be as pliable.  She might even welcome a bullet to end her miserable existence.  He ruled her out. 

The middle girl appeared to be in her twenties and carried more weight on what had probably once been a heavy-set body, but her dull brown eyes lacked the spark of intelligence.  She reminded him of a half-wit cousin that couldn’t even milk a cow right…and she stared right at him.  Only a fool or a hero would stare into the face of death as if challenging it.  He doubted she was a hero. 

The third was a tall girl, probably in her late teens, with light brown, almost blonde hair--what there was left of it, in any case.  The camp barbers kept the women closely shorn to help keep the lice population down.  That was the official excuse, but it served to keep them from being human.  Even without locks to frame her head, Gerhardt couldn’t get a good look at her face.  The girl kept her eyes down and head turned, afraid, or unwilling, to look at him.  He pulled out a truncheon and stuck it under her chin, lifting it forcibly. 

“Keep your head up,” he said. 

“Yes, sir,” she said.  There was a quiver in her voice. 

“I’m not a sir,” he growled.  “I’m a sergeant.  That means I work for a living.  You will address me as Sergeant Schroeder if you wish to live.”

“Yes, si…Sergeant Schroeder.”

“Are you a good Jew?”

“Yes, Sergeant Schroeder.”

“Do you know all the Jew customs and go to temple every day?”

She shook her head.  “I know the traditions, but only go to synagogue once a week.”

Good enough.

Gerhardt stared into her face and saw just enough fear for his purposes.  He looked up and down her body as if taking inventory; the torn, ill-fitting camp uniform hid little from his probing eye.  The girl squirmed, her face reddened, but she didn’t pull away.  She was still pretty for a Jew, and had a little meat on her bones

She’ll do.

Gerhardt grabbed the girl by the arm and dragged her across the parade ground toward his barracks. 

“What do you want with me?” she asked as he pulled her up the front steps, but he didn’t answer.

“Please, Sergeant Schroeder,” she begged, “What do you…”

“Shut up,” he said hoarsely, trying not to draw attention to himself.  The girl fell silent, but he could feel her body shaking under his grip.  He knew what she was expecting.  There would be only one reason for a guard to take a female prisoner to his room.

Striding in with the girl in tow, he shoved her toward his bunk.  Momentum carried her over the end of the bed, the edge cutting her legs out from under her.  She sprawled awkwardly across the taunt wool blanket, face down.  Gerhardt’s boots followed behind her, and the girl flipped onto her back.  Eyes wide, she raised a foot to defend herself.  Gerhardt walked past her and sat down near the head of the bed next to a table with a small typewriter.  Sergeant Guderian, sleeping four feet away, snored ignorantly on.  A bombing raid wouldn’t wake the man.

 “What’s your name?” Gerhardt demanded.

“Anja,” she said with a questioning tone.  Slowly, she sat up, warily watching Gerhardt.  When he didn’t respond, she stood and took two steps away from the bed.  This wasn’t what she’d expected.

“Surname?”

“Bergman.”

Gerhardt pulled a prisoner transfer form out of his pocket and ratcheted it into position.  His fingers pounded out the letters as quietly as possible as he typed the name into a blank near the top.  Grabbing her arm without explanation, he turned it so he could read the prisoner identification number she had received at Auschwitz before her transfer to Ravensbrück and entered that as well.  The transfer he was typing wasn’t authentic, but it would be good enough to get them past the front gates.

Anja’s eyes grew wide.  “What is that you are doing?”

“I’m going on a trip and you’re coming along.  Do as you’re told and you’ll live.” He didn’t bother stating the rest.  All the prisoners in the camp would know the consequences. 

Anja nodded, but said, “The only thing I won’t…”

Gerhardt glared at her.  “You won’t what Anja Bergman? Tell me what it is you won’t do to live.”  Her lips thinned and turned white.  She wanted to respond, he could tell, but then her eyes dropped to the ground and she remained silent.

He scoffed, “That’s what I thought.”

Guderian’s alarm clock went off, catching both of them by surprise.  Gerhardt tucked the paper into his pocket and buttoned it closed as his barracks mate dropped a heavy arm on the clock.  The harsh trilling stopped.  Guderian sat up groggily.  “You are going now, Schroeder?”

Gerhardt nodded.

“What’s with the Jew?” Sergeant Guderian asked, jerking a thumb toward the girl.

“She’s a transfer.”

“Why? We have all the facilities to handle her right here.”

Gerhardt winked.  “I need a little something to keep me warm on the trip.  Get the adrenaline flowing in the mornings, eh?”

The other sergeant looked disgusted.  “Try coffee instead, it won’t give you fleas.”

Gerhardt laughed, “Ersatz coffee? I’d rather catch fleas.  I’ll be sure to stop by the new camp’s delousing station.”

Guderian waived a dismissive hand as he rolled out of bed.  “Your funeral.  You’ll catch some disease for sure.”

Gerhardt motioned for Anja to stand then turned on his heel and headed toward the door.  “Don’t just stand there, grab my duffel bag and follow me.”

Anja grabbed the bag and pulled it onto her shoulder, nearly falling over from the awkward weight.  It was almost as big as she was, but she was able to stabilize it and follow The Butcher out the door. 

 

* * *

 

An icy wind forced itself through whatever opening it could find in the car, chilling Gerhardt and Anja as the Kübelwagen he’d picked up from the motor pool moved through the main gate for the last time.  Above the gate the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei”�"“Work Shall Make You Free”�"passed overhead.  He turned north.  Gerhardt’s travel papers got him as far as the outskirts of Szczecin, just over the border in Poland.  But he knew he’d never make it past any military roadblocks to get into the town and the Russians wouldn’t be far away.  He was counting on the confusion to provide him with an opportunity.  The road was in horrible condition due to Allied bombing.

For the first time in five hours, Anja spoke without being told to shut up.  “Where are we going?”

“North.”

“Are you lost?” she asked timidly.

“No.” Gerhardt down-shifted the Kübelwagen and turned onto yet another side road.  The scenery had turned from farm and forest to the middle class suburban homes on the fringe of city limits.

Anja shifted in her seat, nervous.  “We’re not going to the camp, are we?”

“You ask a lot of questions.”

“I think you’re going to rape me and kill me,” she said evenly.  Gerhardt was surprised by the calmness in her voice.

“We are at war.  We’re all going to die.  When it happens depends on you,” he said, offering a sliver of hope.

She shifted again, her hands clenching and unclenching, revealing the fear she’d been able to keep out of her voice.  “You are at war.  I am not at war.”

A group of soldiers stood beside an armored car ahead.  Gerhardt couldn’t tell if it was a roadblock or just an infantry unit in transit, but didn’t dare take the chance.  There was no way he could find an excuse for so serious a travel deviation with his “delicate” cargo.  No amount of bluffing would hold up, and he knew it.

Turning off the highway, he drove into the town, up and down the side streets until he figured it was too risky to continue.  Gerhardt kept one eye always open for roadblocks, the other looking for a place to hide out.  The sun would set soon.

He down-shifted the Kübelwagen again, slowing the vehicle while passing a house that looked deserted.  The gray one-story wasn’t much to look at: thick grass rose more than two feet into the air, obscuring most of the porch area, and ivy snaked unfettered along the outside wall, but the roof was in tact.

Pressing down on the gas, Gerhardt drove three blocks further, then turned down another side street and went two more, not wanting anyone to connect the vehicle to the abandoned house.  Finally, satisfied they had gone far enough, he pulled the car over in a narrow alley and shut it off.  Glancing at his watch, he looked up into the late afternoon sky with frustration.  There was little daylight left.

“Stay in the car,” he ordered.  He unsnapped the holster to his pistol.  Anja said nothing as he walked down the street, back toward the abandoned home.

After three blocks, Gerhardt stopped in front of the house and risked a quick glance back at the hidden auto.  He considered she could just take the car and leave him, but where would she go dressed as she was?  He buttoned his uniform jacket so he looked presentable.  Walking to the front door, Gerhardt banged on the jamb and waited for a response.  He tried a second time but received no response.  No one home.  He returned to the car, opened the door and instructed Anja to carry his large duffel bag inside, which she struggled to comply.

The house was dark and smelled horrible.  Gerhardt searched the first rooms quickly with his Luger drawn and soon discovered the source of the odor: spoiled food in an open ice box in the kitchen.  He would have to forage for food elsewhere.  Right now he had to get the woman out of her prisoner’s rags and into something presentable; something convincing.  He ordered her to follow him upstairs to a bedroom where he found a wardrobe filled with men’s and women’s clothes.  Apparently, the family had left in a hurry during the bombing.  Or had been arrested.  He didn’t care which as he tugged a shirt and trousers off their hangers and began unbuttoning his uniform.  He tossed a simple dress to Anja.

“Take off your clothes.  All of them.  Put this on.”  She looked ashamed for an instant, then set her jaw firmly and stared Gerhardt straight in the eyes as she began to remove her filthy rags.

“Not here.  Go in the corner.”  He turned his back to her and removed his trousers. 

Anja stared at him for a moment, too shocked to comply with his order, if in deed it was such.  The Butcher’s behavior was becoming more and more out of character.  She turned and went into the corner as he had commanded, disrobed quickly and put on the dress.  It was too big, but tied around the waste in the back, which held it on her ethereal frame.  With her old uniform in a neat stack, she returned to Gerhardt, who had completed his transformation from SS guard to Polish suburbanite.  He hung the neat grey uniform in the wardrobe and without acknowledging her, returned downstairs.  Unbidden, Anja Bergman followed.

Fortunately, he hadn’t needed the fake prisoner transfer papers, so he ripped them up and lit them in the coal stove.  He turned to find her standing as before, with her tattered striped uniform neatly folded in both hands.  Gerhardt snatched the filthy rags from her and threw them in the fire.  He considered building a larger fire for the night, but was afraid it would draw too much attention.  He would have to come up with another solution for warmth.  Gerhardt began searching the cupboards for food and soon discovered a gray, stale loaf of bread and a few jars of pickled beets.  He hated beets, but they would do. 

Anja watched him carefully, eyeing the entire loaf of bread with obvious hunger, but remained totally submissive.  The light in the house was growing dim as the sun set and the air grew noticeably colder, but Anja had long ago stopped feeling the cold.  She stood placidly behind The Butcher as he withdrew a rusty knife from a drawer and cut the entire loaf into thick slices.  He found a large porcelain serving bowl with a crack down the side and dumped a jar of beets into it, then brought the bread and bowl over to a table covered with newspapers and broken wine bottles.

“Clear the table.”

Anja moved to the table without looking at the food and raked an arm across the top, sweeping the litter into the floor.  The wine bottles fell with a loud crash and shattered.  Gerhardt quickly set the food on the table and shoved Anja against the wall with little effort.  She struck the peeling wall paper with her hands and cheek and immediately turned to face him.

“Quiet, you fool!  You’ll get us both killed!” he said hoarsely.  They looked at each other for a full minute, neither moving or speaking.  Finally Gerhardt slid one of the two usable chairs back and sat down, taking a slice of the moldy bread with one hand and dipped it in the beets.  He took a reluctant bite and grimaced at the flavor, but forced it down his throat.

She watched him take another bite and wince, but it was apparently enough to awaken her intense hunger.  She no longer waited like a dog for him to give her orders.  The half-starved woman sat in the other chair opposite Gerhardt and drew a slice of bread.  Anja scooped a small mound of the mushy, sour beets onto her bread and devoured it in large bites.  The deep red juice dribbled down her chin, but she caught it before it stained her dress.  Gerhardt said nothing; stared out the window at the purpling sky.  When the last of the sunlight had vanished, he returned his attention to the woman.  She had finished her bread and beets and reached for seconds.

“Enough.  You have had enough.”  The unmistakable sound of a low flying Messerschmitt fighter flew over the house, followed seconds later by his wingman.  Looking for us already? he thought.  No.  Bombers.  They are looking for British bombers.  The bloody colored bowl reflected what trace amounts of light remained.  She wiped her hands on a piece of newspaper, but her fingers were deeply stained.  She sucked them unconsciously, savoring the remaining flavor.

Gerhardt stood and contemplated covering the bowl of beets, but didn’t view the meal as worth saving.  The brief fire had died in the stove and through one window, he saw the first of the search lights flicker to life a mile away.  “Good,” he muttered to himself.  “Far enough away that I might get some sleep.”  He returned his thoughts to the woman sitting at the dark table.  He was certain she had secreted a piece of bread while his back was turned.

“Upstairs.” He commanded.  “The night will be long and cold.  It is time for bed.”

Anja didn’t immediately move, but rather appeared to be considering her alternatives or attempting to otherwise understand what was happening�"or about to happen.  The knife lay on the table before her.  Gerhardt continued to be firm, but patient with her.  He need her cooperation as much as he need her obedience.  This would require extreme discipline.  Across the dim room he saw her hand drop from her mouth as she finally stood and walked silently to his side.  He turned, took one last look out the window at the bright beams across the river that scanned the dense clouds above, and made his way up the stairs to the bedroom where they had changed earlier.  Anja followed reluctantly and Gerhardt thought he heard a muffled whimper.

He unceremoniously pulled the thick, musty smelling blankets back on the lumpy bed and stood expectantly, waiting for her to lie down.  Anja stood with her arms crossed and this time audibly sobbed.  She seemed to be gathering courage, then in one swift move, she crawled into the bed and hugged the outside edge, her back to the other side.  Gerhardt walked casually to the other side and sat down.  He kept his clothes on, but removed his shoes and placed them carefully on the floor so he could quickly put them on if needed.  He cycled a round into the chamber of the Luger and placed it under his pillow.

“Remove your shoes.  I am not a pig and this is not a sty.”

Again, she hesitated, but complied by quickly moving both feet over the edge and shuffling the worn slippers off.  He pulled the blankets and sheets over them both and lay on his back with his hands crossed over his chest, staring at the dim light from the Wehrmacht anti-aircraft lights that reflected off the ceiling.  He noticed a large crack in the plaster that ran the whole length of the room, bisecting the bed between them.  He lay there for several moments, deep in thought and reexamined their flight so far; second guessing his vague plan.  Although a third person could have easily fit between them, he could feel the Anja trembling beside him.  It was cold, but he knew it was fear.  He continued to follow the pale lights that rolled across the cracked ceiling like ocean waves.  Yes, he thought.  That is it.  I am drowned; in over my head.  So this is my grave?  Well, it is a grave of my choosing…

“Why am I here?” she asked, her voice barely audible.

Gerhardt turned away from the shrunken figure crying into the pillow beside him and went to sleep.

 

* * *

 

He bolted upright in the bed, groggy, the remnants of a dream still fogging his consciousness.  He immediately checked the bed beside him; empty.  The drone overhead was barely audible above the bomb blasts and return AAA fire from the German 88mm guns across the river, near the docks.  He found the Luger under the pillow and slipped his shoes on in the near dark.  The searchlight activity outside had tripled since he had drifted off.  How long have I been asleep, he thought absently.  It felt late and he could not see his watch in the patchy darkness.  He considered called out her name, but he couldn’t remember what it was.  A bomb struck nearby, shaking the house and prompting him to drop to the cold wooden floor.  He heard her breathing and as the light washed over the house and leaked into the window, he made out the whites of her wide eyes under the bed.  He breathing was erratic, near panic.

“The basement.” He whispered, though he thought absently about the absurdity of whispering during a bombing raid.  He reached out his hand, but she shrank away, clawing the floor like an animal.  He lunged further, caught the hem of her dress and dragged her out forcibly.

“THE BASEMENT!” he shouted, as much to be heard above the growing din outside from the returning 88’s.  He jerked her to her feet and dragged her to the stairs, both forgetting her frail shoes.  They stumbled down the stairs as several bombs walked their way down the street toward the house.  He absently thought about the Kübelwagen down the street.  At the bottom of the stairs, he turned to continue down to the basement, but the woman pulled away and made a break for the door. She fumbled with the knob before comprehending the simple technology and successfully opened it. 

Outside, the air raid sirens wailed against the growl of British Lancasters high above.  Gerhardt sped down the gritty steps as plaster flaked from the ceiling above and filled the crisp night air with a fine white powder that created a haze with each pass of the search lights.  He caught a brief glimpse of the silhouette of an impossibly thin woman in an oversized dress, so much like a child playing dress-up, wandering into the overgrown front yard with her head raised to the heavens; arms straight out from her sides like an airplane.  She twirled once as she gazed upward and then was gone in a blinding flash.

 

* * *

 

Gerhardt awoke at the foot of the stairs in the basement.  Sunlight streamed in from overhead and he saw a faint patch of blue through a huge tear in the roof.  His back ached and he gently moved each of his limbs, testing for serious injury.  Other than a few splinters in his right hand and minor abrasions on his knuckles and elbows, he was remarkably uninjured.  Still disoriented, he pulled himself from the wrecked staircase and found his way back up.  He estimated he had been unconscious for ten hours, assuming the bombing raid the previous night was at three a.m.

His plan to pass for a pitiful couple escaping the advancing action: the Russians, the Germans, the British, the Americans�"he would use any and all to get him where he wanted to go�"had evaporated along with the remains of the woman.  He looked out the shattered front of the house and saw a huge crater, but no body. 

What was her name?  The thought felt alien; external.

Although his original plan was never very well thought through and depended heavily on whatever sympathies the woman might have provided, he now found himself at the mercy of total improvisation.  It thrilled him that he was relying completely on his own resourcefulness; that he had fully taken his destiny in his own hands and although he had no idea how it would all unfold, he was now finally in control of his life.

As he worked his way through the rubble of the house, he found an expensive steel quill pen and ink well.  His mind seemed to switch off and an odd auto-pilot eased into the controls.  I can’t remember her name.

He took the quill pen and began piercing his forearm in small, incremental, careful movements.  His blood rose to the surface from each puncture.  When he had finished, he dipped the corner of a torn window curtain in the inkwell and rubbed the ink from the well into his wound as carefully as he could, while the alien voice in his head dictated every move.

A27364.  Her name was Rachel.

 

He returned upstairs and found his uniform still neatly hung in the wardrobe, which had slid against the far wall when the front of the house was hit.  He dressed with relish, pressing the creases of the spotless trousers and blouse between his sore fingers.  The greatcoat was warm and comforting and proudly displayed his rank and the SS insignia.  He found his cap with the sinister, grinning totenkopf skull and crossed bones on the band and in a broken mirror, placed it precisely on his head.  Gerhardt waited another hour for night to fall before throwing the duffel bag back over his shoulder and setting out through the industrial district toward the waterfront…at least, through what used to be the industrial district.  Daylight bombing by the Americans, and nighttime missions from the British had left the area in ruins.  Blackened smokestacks stretched into the darkness like gravestones marking the final resting place for the demolished buildings they used to serve. 

Broken glass crunched under his boots as he walked toward the water, the sound disproportionately loud in an area that before the war had teemed with activity all night long.  No drunken sailors or longshoremen tying one on after a hard day’s work; no prostitutes plying their trade.  All were gone off to the front lines or the production lines.  Overhead, swallows chased each other across the peach colored sunset.

Gerhardt’s eyes swept back and forth continuously, ever conscious of soldiers on patrol.  Even if his “orders” were loosely interpreted (an unlikely prospect, he knew), he’d have no excuse for being where he was.  It was the most dangerous part of his new mission the voice had given him.  It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.

The smell of saltwater in the air spurred him on as the possibility of success carried Gerhardt through the spectral ruins of a devastated economy.  Each step kicked up dust which spread over the street by the smoldering buildings.  A gritty film coated Gerhardt’s throat and made him thirsty.  However, in a city bordered by tons of water, there was nothing to drink.  The irony almost made him laugh.

Gerhardt concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and eventually crested a small hill where he was at last able to see the harbor.  A thrill coursed through his veins as he viewed the expanding Baltic in the distance.  He wondered if it were possible to see Sweden or Finland.

Maybe in the daylight, he thought, knowing full well he’d never find out.  If he weren’t hidden before dawn he’d be a sitting duck for the SS patrols that were bound to be making sweeps of the harbor area. 

Straining his eyes, Gerhardt could make out dark shapes on the water; ships lying at anchor, waiting to load or offload cargo.  Even in the last days of the war, shipping companies were still trying to snatch the last bit of profit before the curtain fell on the Third Reich.  He walked past a large brick structure with gaping holes where the windows used to be.  Fire had left the crumbling edifice a hollow shell, but spikes of light poked through it.

Where there were lights, there were people.

Gerhardt dropped to his knees, scuttling one-handed toward a broken down Puma armored car that had been pushed to the side of the road.  His right hand steadied the duffel bag, keeping it from swinging onto the ground with a thump that might be heard by whoever was in the building, while his left bore all his weight.  Pain laced through his fingers as bits of broken glass sliced into his skin.  Unable to cry out, he bit down on his cheek to compensate for the pain while his blood mixed with the thick dust on the road.

Ducking behind the derelict vehicle, Gerhardt kept his head down and his senses active.  The wind carried the mechanical sounds of heavy equipment to his ears; tractor treads clanked along on some unknown mission.  Panzers, he surmised.

Gerhardt peeked around the wheel well but couldn’t see the light any more.  The vehicle sounds continued, but he figured they were distant enough not to pose a threat.  He was still leery of a sentry being positioned in the abandoned building though, so he backtracked and went around the block instead.  Every few feet he looked to make sure he wasn’t being followed.  Putting two blocks between himself and the hollow building, Gerhardt figured it was safe to return to the street he’d been on.  The road appeared to run straight down to the waterfront, which he guessed to be about one-third of a mile away.

So close.  His palms started to sweat, knowing how near he was to pulling the new plan off.  Shifting the duffel back to his other shoulder, Gerhardt went one more block before the rumbling of distant vehicle sounds stopped.  He froze, held his breath; wondered what the significance of the new silence was.  The seconds turned to minutes.

Nothing.

He started to move again when suddenly the whole universe seemed bathed in light.  Gerhardt’s heart leaped into his throat.  Searchlights! It was like someone throwing a switch on the cosmic wall, illuminating the heavens above, tracing across the clouds as if writing a message.  He was very close.  One of the beams reaching skyward came from just two hundred feet in front of him.  The aura outlined the burnt frame of a small house surrounding the big searchlight.  Part of the roof had been cut or blown away by the bombing, allowing the light an adequate field of view.  He’d have never spotted it in the dark until he was right on top of it. 

While the searchlights aided him by illuminating the neighborhoods he walked through, the beams of light piercing the night sky pointed right back to their point of origin.  Gerhardt could see every searchlight post in a five-mile radius, while the soldiers manning them would have almost no night vision left.  As long as he gave them a wide enough berth, the odds were still in his favor.  Gerhardt started plotting a course around the beams, having his route nearly determined by the time the throaty growl of four-engined Lancaster bombers reached his ears.

He almost kicked himself.  Idiot.  He’d been in a prison camp too long, safe from the depredations of the bomber formations.  When the searchlights came on, it was only for one reason: to help the anti-aircraft gunners find their targets.  The longer ranged 88mm guns opened first, their throaty barks launching death into the sky while Gerhardt spit the road grit out of his mouth.  He cursed all the unexpected events conspiring to make the end of his journey more difficult.

Gerhardt looked around to find cover before the bombs started dropping when he realized almost everyone else would be doing the same thing.  The few not scurrying for a bomb shelter would be staring at the sky trying to shoot down the oncoming Lancasters.  The one thing they wouldn’t be doing is looking for people like him.

The bombing wasn’t a curse but an opportunity!

Not knowing how long he had before the bombers left, Gerhardt jumped to his feet and grabbed the duffel strap.  Swinging the bag over his shoulder, he tried to make a run for the waterfront.  The heavy bag forced him into an awkward lope, but he didn’t care.  Any guard that saw him would assume he was just another person running for shelter.

The constant pitch of bombers droned overhead like a menacing plague of locusts, the thicker roar of their Rolls Royce Merlin’s offset by the higher pitched engines of the occasional night fighter.  The Daimler-Benz powered Messerschmitt fighters slashed through the oncoming formation, their higher revving engines whining to deliver their attacks and then get them out of the area before the smaller flak batteries could join the fight.  The fighters had barely faded into the darkness when 40mm and 57mm anti-aircraft guns joined the deadly chorus.

Gerhardt wanted to look up, drawn to the life and death struggle taking place in the heavens, but didn’t have the time.  He was too worried about his own struggles while hoofing it block after block toward the waterfront as he used the attack as the diversion he needed to escape.  Gerhardt had nothing to lose.  He’d either make it to the port or die trying, which was the same fate he faced if he didn’t escape. 

The first bombs shook the earth with an unholy roar as a pounding earthquake moved across the city and drawing nearer, shook the ground under his feet. 

I must be crazy, he wondered, but the increasing explosive discharge put and end to that idea.  It’s crazier to stay in Germany and be executed as a traitor by the Nazis, or a war criminal by the Americans…or worse, become a slave in a Russian prison camp.

The gates to the port facility lay ahead to his left.  For the first time since the bombers had begun dropping their loads, he slowed down.  Beads of sweat rolled down the inside of his shirt.  He hated to think what he might look like.

He looked toward the gates, which were swung all the way open.  There were no guards in sight.  In the early days of the war, such dereliction would have gotten someone shot.  Most of the officers were beyond that now as hopes turned toward simply surviving the end.

Most officers, but not all.  He had no illusions what fate might fall on a deserter.  Deserter.  The word stuck in the pit of his stomach, but there was no time to mull it over.  Already late to catch the next train leg to his duty station, he was fully committed.  He took a deep breath and ran through the gates and into the shipyard.  All the while he waited for a shouted command that would mean capture and execution, but only silence followed him through.  He didn’t know what he was looking for, but figured he would find a way aboard a ship�"any ship�"headed out of Germany. 

The lights were off in the yard, the harbormaster probably trying to avoid attracting the bombers’ deadly attentions.  Rumbling along awkwardly under the duffel’s weight, Gerhardt could just make out the lines of a cargo ship moored to the pier.  A rumble boiled up from her stern.  The vessel was preparing to get underway, probably to escape any bombs directed at the dockyard.

 Gerhardt heard a stream of curses coming from his right.  Figuring it for someone either working on the departing ship or trying to help it leave, he headed in that direction.  A goose-necked crane swung over a pile of boxes resting atop a cargo net.  A darkened figure sat in the crane’s cab, screaming orders in a foreign language at another fellow trying to lift one of the cargo net edges. 

Gerhardt ran up behind a small tool shed about twenty yards from the man on the ground.  The pause allowed him to catch his breath, and he watched the man struggle to get the loops of the thick net around the crane’s dangling hook.  Shouts from the crane operator appeared to exasperate the struggling man, who gestured rudely at the other.  Noticing the blue flag with a yellow cross hanging from the stern, Gerhardt knew the ship they were loading was from Sweden. 

A neutral country.  That would be perfect.  He glanced around, looking for any sign of guards, but that section of the yard was deserted except for the two arguing Swedes.  Making a snap decision, Gerhardt threw his cap and overcoat on the ground, then turned his uniform coat inside out and hoped it would be look like a regular jacket in the dark.  Throwing his greatcoat and cap into the duffel, he looked back at the struggling Swede trying to hook the net.  The man had managed to get one on, but was still having a lot of trouble.  He kept glancing toward the skies as the stream of bombers neared and German anti-aircraft fire increased.

A man under pressure makes mistakes, thought Gerhardt, conveniently ignoring that he was also one of those men.  Gerhardt moved stealthily off to the left and around to the far side of the pile of boxes, skirting just outside the two Swedes’ visual range in the darkened yard.  Once he was opposite them he came from the ship side and ran straight in, looking like a fellow crewman coming to help attach the net.  He kept the duffel low, where it would be hardest to see, and made sure the pile of boxes blocked the nearest Swede’s line of sight.

Nearing the cargo, he tossed his duffel onto the pile and ran to help with the net.  The tall, stocky figured Swede wore a dark sweater with a knit cap on his blonde head.  With one side of the net held awkwardly overhead, the Swede smiled and said something Gerhardt didn’t understand.  He hoped it was a Swedish version of “Thanks.”

Sliding in beside the larger Swede, the two men hoisted the edge of the net into the hook and quickly got the rest connected.  Flashing a thumbs-up signal to the crane operator, the net man said something else to Gerhardt and ran toward the ship.  Gerhardt followed.

The two pounded up the gantry to the ship as the crane operator swung the dangling cargo net right over their heads and into the cargo hold.  It was a rushed operation, and Gerhardt could hear it thump heavily against the hatchway on the way down. 

The sound of bombs split the night as Gerhardt stepped aboard the Swedish vessel; explosives flashed like lighting in the night sky.  The detonations were approaching the dockyard but he didn’t care as he felt the engines for his passage to freedom surging to life under his feet.  The bombs would arrive too late to stop the ship from escaping, and he doubted the high-flying bombers could hit a moving target in the darkness.

A deep Scandinavian voice boomed from a higher deck level, and several men scurried about the mooring lines which held the ship to the pier.  All of them wore the same dark sweater and knit cap of the cargo net handler.  The lines were cast just as the crane operator threw himself off the gantry and onto the deck at Gerhardt’s feet.  The man’s winded breathing turned to happy laughter as the ship started pulling away from the dock…until he saw Gerhardt.  Rising to a sitting position, then standing and looking the German in the eye, the hawk-nosed man asked a question in Swedish.

Ignorant of the meaning, Gerhardt tried to wing it by smiling and laughing as he clapped the man on the back and pointed toward the explosions.  Still chuckling, he started to walk away from the Swede and angled toward the opposite side of the deck.  He hadn’t gone four paces before an iron hand gripped his arm.

“Wie heisst du?” asked the Swede in German, his blue eyes boring into Gerhardt’s skull.  What is your name?

Gerhardt answered in Polish, a language he hadn’t spoken since childhood, giving a rambling reply he tried to make look earnest.  The unexpected language surprised the Swedish merchantman.  He took a step back, eying the stowaway as if trying to figure out what to do.  He looked up toward the ship’s bridge.

Gerhardt knew it was the moment of truth.  Pulling one of the pieces of gold from his pocket, he held it out for the sailor to see.  The man’s eyes widened, then relaxed.

Pantomiming, Gerhardt conveyed that he would pay for the Swede to hide him.  After a minute’s contemplation and an exchanged piece of gold, the Swede led him below-decks and tucked him into a janitorial closet next to the forward hold.  The space was tight, and he’d paid a high price for it, but it would get him out of Germany.  The room reeked of chlorine and diesel fuel, an unusually pungent combination, and the single light bulb on the ceiling cast as many shadows as it drove away.  Turning over a bucket, Gerhardt sat down, leaned against the wall and tried to get some sleep.

An hour later, the door slammed open, the sound jolting him from an uncomfortable sleep.  The Swede, red-faced with anger, spat out the word, “Nazi!” and tossed the duffel bag at Gerhardt.  The duffel had been opened and the SS cap was in his clenched fist.  The totenkopf smiled mockingly back at Gerhardt.

“Nein, nein.  Ich bin Juden!” he said, desperate to avoid having the Swede turn him in.  The strange voice calling himself a Jew spoke out before he could even think about it.  The irony hadn’t fully escaped him, but he would use anything if it would keep him alive.  He pantomimed stealing the clothing, narrating his actions in Polish as if the Swede would understand the words.  Finishing the charade, he pulled up his sleeve and pointed to the faked concentration camp tattoo on his arm.  “Juden, Juden!” he insisted.

The Swede’s face lightened, but he still looked uncertain.  He reached for the duffel and pulled out Gerhardt’s overcoat.  “Nazi,” he repeated, but without the same conviction.

Moving around the larger merchantman, Gerhardt dug more clothes out of the bag and drew the flask and the two wooden boxes out.  The Hebraic lettering on the side of the Jew’s keepsake stood out in spite of the poor lighting of the room.  He put the box down on the metal flooring and opened the lid for the first time, and retrieved an unbound diary beneath a careworn Bible.  He showed them briefly to the Swede before putting them back inside.  “Mein kinder,” he said, holding his palm to his heart to show the kinder, the child, was his.

The Swede nodded in understanding. 

It was enough, but Gerhardt wanted the Swede all the way in his court.  Reaching into his pocket, Gerhardt pulled out his wallet and removed the picture of his daughter.  The real one.  He handed the photograph over to the sailor while staring into her smiling eyes, something he knew he’d never be able to do again in real life.  The knowledge made his hand tremble, and a tear slid out the corner of his eye.  He quickly regained composure and drew a line across his throat.

“Nazi’s.”

The performance, tinged with real emotion, was convincing.  The Swede nodded again, looking apologetic as he handed back the picture.  Without saying another word, he closed the door and walked away. 

Gerhardt returned the photograph to his wallet and slumped back against the wall, exhausted by the wellspring of emotions that had erupted so suddenly.  The ship was headed toward the safety of neutral Sweden…and away from the Fatherland; away from the dark German soil which held his wife and daughter along with countless other wives and daughters.  He closed his eyes, but sleep eluded him.  His sorrows, however, did not.  The photographic image of his daughter’s face danced just out of reach.  He longed to hold her again; to play tag in the small green patch of yard behind the house; to tuck her in at night. 

To love her. 

The tears started slowly at first, but escalated until they consumed him.  The freighter rumbled steadily through the cold night; diesel engines thumped in the background, as the Nazi concentration camp guard pulled the metal flask from his bag drank himself to sleep.

It would be the first of many such nights.

* * *



© 2010 Kris St. James


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Added on March 9, 2010
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Author

Kris St. James
Kris St. James

Birmingham, AL



About
I'm a Southern Gothic writer who enjoys telling stories about the forgotten. I appreciate all thoughtful critiques and will gladly reciprocate. If you don't like my work, please say so, but please.. more..

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