I awoke early with everyone else but almost too late to meet my ride. Without washing or having breakfast, I rushed out of the barracks and towards the gate. The truck was already there, occupied by several prisoners. As the SS guards were about to raise the tailgate, one of them noticed me.
"Faster, faster! You lazy swine!"
With these words he came towards me and attempted to kick me in the rear, but I was running too fast. In one leap I was past the other guard and into the truck, supporting myself on the shoulder of a fellow prisoner.
"A good run," the guard sneered, "but not fast enough if you're thinking of escaping. My bullet would go faster!"
Both guards climbed into the back of the truck and ordered us to sit on the floor. They then took the side benches with their rifles pointed in our direction. After six months at the Gustloff Werke, I found their behaviour a rude awakening to the routine life of a prisoner and decided then and there to decline Zigi's offer. Better to take my chances of being killed by falling bombs than to endure again this treatment. I even regretted not sending a message to Kazik informing him of my decision.
Preoccupied by these thoughts, I was startled by the familiar shouts of "Out!" and "Faster!" when we stopped in front of Buchenwald's main gate. jumping from the truck, we were each counted and had our numbers recorded by a guard before proceeding past the barrier. I had hardly set foot in the camp when I saw Kazik running to meet me. Our mutual joy at this reunion momentarily put out of mind all my resolutions.
"Let's go somewhere, Kon. I have so much to tell you, I don't know where to begin."
"Then why not start at the beginning," I replied, "for I also have some thoughts to share with you."
Kazik led me to a secluded area behind one of the barracks. I had no idea what to expect from him, but his first bit of news caught me completely off guard.
"I've arranged everything for your transfer to Camp Rose. We should leave Buchenwald about noon in order to catch the afternoon train."
"What are you talking about? Didn't Zigi and I agree that I'd have time to think it over? In fact, I've already thought it over and I'd prefer to stay in Weimar."
Although surprised by my reaction, Kazik quickly recovered his composure. "Don't be angry, Kon. Remember that we also agreed to go together or not at all. I promised you that I'd evaluate the situation and you must hear me out."
We had always trusted each other's judgement and knowing he was right about first assessing the possibilities, I managed to bring my temper under control.
"'All right then, why should I leave my relatively comfort-able life in Weimar to subject myself to campelder Zigi?"
"Buchenwald still has control over your job at the factory, which could very easily be bombed sooner or later. I don't want to praise Zigi - frankly, he should be wearing a green triangle and not a red one. But although he has the mind of a brilliant criminal, he also sees himself as a patron of the arts.
"You and I have lived with criminals for years and can adapt to their whims and desires. But there are other factors I consider much more important that outweigh Zigi's character. First, the guards at Camp Rose are not actually SS men. They're veterans of the First World War put into SS uniforms. Germany is running out of men! These so-called guards know nothing about concentration camps and most of them would never think of killing a prisoner. Also, we have a radio there on which we can listen daily to broadcasts from London. Did you realize that American, English, Canadian and our own Polish troops are now in France and have taken the whole of Italy? The Russian army is also fast advancing through Poland to Germany. The war may be over sooner than we expect. Frankly, under such circumstances I think we'd be much safer in little Camp Rose when the war ends."
I contended these were solid arguments, but still wanted to know why he had made the arrangements without consulting me. "Quite simply, there was no time," he responded. "I had to decide for both of us yesterday. Today we're taking with us 40 Italian prisoners of war, chaperoned by two Camp Rose guards. Believe me, you will see the difference!"
Kazik then grabbed my arm and hurried me towards a barracks where the prisoners' clothing was stored. Following him through the door. I noticed that he had already been there to select two good suits for us. I also saw that the greater part of the clothing assigned to those being transferred had had strips of material removed from the sides of pants and backs of jackets, replaced by either red or blue patches.
"Although we wear civilian clothes at Camp Rose, they are altered to discourage the men from escaping," he explained. "The few of us who have important functions in the camp wear only the red triangle and number, in the usual way."
Apart from the suits, Kazik had bribed from the men working there warm underwear and a couple of turtleneck sweaters, items not usually issued to prisoners. After changing and sewing on our triangles and numbers, we hastily departed for the Italian barracks where Kazik checked on a list the name of each prisoner assigned to us, then marched them in two groups towards the main gate. There they were counted again and, watched over by the two Camp Rose guards, boarded trucks to the Weimar railway station.
After our arrival and the departure of the Buchenwald trucks, I overheard the guards taking instructions from my friend, which naturally struck me as bizarre. I approached Kazik during a break in the conversation and whispered excitedly: "What the hell is wrong with those SS men? Don't they know how to travel through their own country?"
"It's all right. They're just two harmless old goofs who need help. Look, I've taken off my number and triangle. Do the same and go find out where the train to Mannheim is. Freight cars for the prisoners are attached to it. And remember, don't act like a prisoner!"
I walked along the platform, still looking over my shoulder to see whether the SS guards were about to stop me with a shout or a bullet. But they were babbling away to Kazik and shuffling some papers around - likely our travel documents.
To be suddenly unescorted and unwatched for the first time in years was an extraordinary feeling. The obvious occurred to me: if it's this easy, why not buy ourselves tickets to Switzerland? As I contemplated this exhilarating possibility, I came across the Mannheim train but without freight cars. I stared at it, not knowing what to do, when a railway policeman marched towards me.
"Show me your documents at once, foreigner!"
So it is not that easy to travel across Germany after all, I thought. But having become accustomed to facing all kinds of strange and dangerous situations, I answered without hesitation.
"I'm here escorting Italian prisoners of war. Two Gestapo men and a colleague of mine are at the other end of the platform guarding the prisoners. Don't you know there should be freight cars added to this train? Where are they?"
The words "Gestapo" and "prisoners" had a magical effect. The policeman forgot about my documents and instead started to apologize for his ignorance. I immediately capitalized on his change in attitude.
"You'd better find out who's responsible for this because if the Gestapo is stuck here with the 40 prisoners, someone win be in trouble!"
The policeman clicked his heels and rushed into the station to make inquiries. Meanwhile I walked back to Kazik to tell him I had initiated the search for the freight cars. Our two elderly guards got the greatest kick out of being cast as powerful Gestapo men and assumed the proper authority when, shortly after, the policeman arrived with the stationmaster. Within moments the freight cars were attached to the train and we boarded to find a special compartment reserved in the passenger car for the "Gestapo" - our two guards, Kazik and myself.
As the train pulled out, one of the guards asked me how I had known that the Weimar station had a Gestapo office. This information took me somewhat aback.
"I didn't know," I said. "But since everything worked out for the best, let's enjoy our comfortable compartment. Look, the rest of the train is packed solid - people are even standing in the corridors."
Though the distance between Weimar and Mannheim is short, the movement of military equipment took priority once again and our train seemed to move backwards as much as it went forwards. No sooner had we left Weimar than an air raid warning went up and our train was moved to a sideline. We waited as almost endless lines of military transports passed us at full speed.
It was almost midnight before we reached Mannheim. Passengers and prisoners disembarked while Kazik, accompanied by one of the guards, notified the camp of our arrival. We then climbed aboard waiting trucks and were driven through the countryside past sleepy little towns and villages and occasionally through uninhabited forests and fields. After about 35 kilometres of bumpy roads there appeared without warning the outline of a post tower and barbed wire. The tower appeared to be unmanned or perhaps the guard was sleeping so soundly he had not heard the engines of the trucks as they approached the front gate.
Kazik jumped to the ground and called for the camp security men who, to my amazement, turned out to be two bleary-eyed prisoners. They opened the gate, informing Kazik that the barracks for the prisoners were ready, then led the Italians to their new quarters.
Our own barracks were faintly lit by a small electric bulb. Crude partitions had been constructed from old boards and pieces of plywood, while in some places blankets hanging on strings sufficed to provide some sort of privacy.
"The palace of the management!" exclaimed Kazik, gesturing broadly. "Our room is the latest addition, the one with the blanket walls. We'll be sharing it with Frederick Jarossy and Father Martin, but I think Jarossy is getting better quarters later - a privilege reserved for men with definite functions to perform here."
Jarossy, who was already in bed, rolled over several times and grumbled audibly about the noise and the lack of sleep "in this palace." Kazik showed me my bunk and I climbed in feeling utterly drained.
Yet sleep was not easy to come by that night. In spite of being accustomed to the unexpected, I had seen a new side of Germany that day. On the one hand was the familiar image of the Nazi Party - cruel, arrogant young men who firmly believed in their racial superiority, determined to enslave foreigners and exterminate Jews. On the other were ordinary civilians like our old guards in SS get-ups and the stationmaster, all frightened to death of the Gestapo, bereaved of their families through battle on the eastern front or in their home towns by air raid bombings. They were neither hostile nor friendly towards concentration camp prisoners - just insensitive, indifferent and obviously tired of war.
Once Kazik and I too, as new prisoners, had been part of a nameless, faceless mass working and dying for the Third Reich. Now we had become equally insensitive to the grey, sick and hungry crowd of Italian prisoners who had ridden in the freight cars behind us and were now lying in their own bunks, even more exhausted than I was.
Finally my disturbing meditations subsided and I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
We awoke in the morning to Zigi's loud bark: "Up and out, you lazy bastards! You think this is Zigi's sanatorium for the mentally deranged?"
He stood in the middle of the room with his feet planted wide apart, striking his pants with a riding whip.
"I let you sleep two hours longer because you were late last night. What kept you, anyway? No doubt dilly-dallying in Buchenwald instead of rushing back as I ordered!"
Sitting up in bed, my attention was attracted less by Zigi than by the man standing behind him. Dressed in a sleeveless sweater out of which poked the arms of a Musselman, he hissed through a set of rotten teeth each time the whip slapped against Zigi's side. His age was difficult to determine; he might have been 16 or 36. Though he had the complexion of a child, his face supported a long thin nose that looked out of place between a pair of big, bulging, blue eyes. It was his eyes I was most drawn to. Void of gaiety or amusement, they darted across the room with curiosity and cunning inquisitiveness.
"You are wondering," said Zigi, drawing close to my bunk, "who this incredible creature is. Well then, let me present to you Prince Andrew. He's only 19, though he has the mind of a 90-year-old sclerotic crook."
Turning to Andrew, he made a gesture as if to kick him and shouted: "Get out of here, you hiccup of humanity! You offspring of a broomstick and a baboon! Out!"
The man backed off with two long strides, far enough to be out of Zigi's reach, from where he continued to survey the room. Ignoring him, Zigi bowed in our direction.
"I am honoured, gentlemen, to invite you to breakfast pre-pared by my French chef. I trust you'll be ready in half an hour, at which time we will discuss the affaires d'état."
Kazik and I found what was termed the "bathroom" in an open part of the barracks, identifiable by a water-filled barrel and a bench on which sat a couple of washbasins. For other facilities one had to go to the outhouse, situated about 100 metres away over a stretch of dough-like, ankle-deep mud. Though boards had been put down between the barracks and outhouse, within a week they were gone, stolen by other prisoners for firewood. Zigi then ordered that several stones be laid along the route, a scheme which might have proved successful had it not been for the freezing rain that autumn, making the path particularly treacherous.
Zigi's quarters were located in another part of the barracks, separated by partitions about two metres high. We entered through the only inside door to be found in the camp, one scavenged from the entrance to some former barracks and thus higher than the partition itself. Along a wall stood a triple-level bunk from the top of which the white face of Prince Andrew leered down at us. In the middle of the room was a large table covered with a bed sheet. A huge figure dressed in the remnants of a French army uniform occupied a nearby bench preparing the "specialité de la maison," boiled potatoes sliced and fried in margarine.
"I know this camp hasn't much to show," said Zigi, sitting us down to the potato feast that included bread, beet root jam and coffee. "I've not had enough time to organize things. But with my influence, the Fat One - I mean, the commandant - will allow us to requisition some furniture from old army barracks to be moved here shortly. I can't do everything myself, which is why I needed you fellows to help me."
Seeing his complaint merely as a form of self-congratulations, I reminded him of a more pressing concern.
"We've been led to believe that the end of the war is not far off . Have you heard any recent news?"
Zigi rose from his chair and walked to his bed, pulling out from under it a small radio which he placed on the bench. He then connected it to an antenna that also served as a laundry line, grounded it to a piece of wire sticking out of the wall, and instantly we were listening to the Free French station.
Although impressed by this little demonstration, I was immediately reminded of our radio at Auschwitz and the attempts by the camp authorities to track it down.
"Aren't you afraid the SS will find it?"
"Not at all," said Zigi, making no effort to conceal his pleasure at our reaction. "The Fat One let me buy it in town. I simply explained to him that I love classical music, especially Wagner, and he decided not to deprive me of contact with the German culture. I am hiding it only from Adam and Jan, who would listen to the news all day long at the expense of their work."
"So when do you think the war will be over?" asked Kazik.
"In all likelihood, very soon. But I have no time to think about such things. Now we are here and must make the best of it. For example, I've arranged for you, Kazik, to go to town this afternoon to look over the army barracks assigned to us. Pick out the best and also see what kind of furniture you can organize. The day after you're to be at the railway station to receive clothing from Auschwitz - no doubt all taken from 'Canada', which means it's bound to contain at least a few $100 bills or £50 notes. With that money we could buy the whole bloody camp, including our crazy commandant."
"Maybe so," Kazik replied. "I only hope this damn war ends before buying camps and commandants becomes a necessity."
Zigi disregarded the remark, evidently preoccupied more with enhancing his kingdom than anticipating the day when each of us would go free. Though his domain consisted essentially of a muddy square of land enclosed by barbed wire, it still provided him with authority over 200 or so prisoners. Our freedom would result not only in his loss of power but also its accompanying privileges, reflected in the relative luxury in which he lived and which he needed us to improve upon.
"It's time I introduced you to Grandpa Schmidt," he said, turning to me, "our man in charge of the food magazines for both prisoners and SS guards. He's an old fart but knows his responsibilities. As a widower, he also has to provide for the families of his three sons - each in the Wehrmacht on the eastern front, though he hasn't heard from them for some time, so they're likely imprisoned in Siberia.
"Essentially, Schmidt is a coward, terrorized by the commandant, but still greedy enough to steal from his own magazines to feed the women and grandchildren. He's the guy you'll be working with in organizing our supplies. Which reminds me, I'd better pay him a visit. He's making his rounds in Mannheim today and has agreed to take us with him."
Zigi threw on a warm jacket and departed, giving Kazik and me an opportunity to discuss the day's activities. We had already begun criticizing the campelder and his plans when we were reminded that another ear was closely following our exchange. Andrew's face, however, registered neither interest nor disgust. He merely eyed us vacantly from his lair, then, with the movements of a sloth, climbed down from his bunk, slinked to the table where he took a large pinch of tobacco from a box left behind by Zigi, stuffed it in his own tobacco box, and with the same slow motion returned to his bed.
"Don't mind me," he wheezed on his way up. "Zigi's a bastard. Everyone here is a bloody bastard. Makes it difficult for a fellow to live decently."
At that moment Zigi bounced through the door, pulling off his coat and handing it to me.
"Schmidt is ready to go. You'd better wear this to conceal your triangle and number, at least until Kazik can find you some-thing better. Schmidt hates to appear in Mannheim as a prison guard. He prefers that we pretend to be civilian workers."
"Can I also come along?" a voice squeaked from above us.
"You?" Zigi snarled. "You half-assed idiot! All you ever think about is stealing for yourself. We're going for bigger game - to help Schmidt organize more food for all of us from the central SS supply. You'd not even think of doing anything for others."
"Neither would you, Zigi," whined Andrew. "You just want some sugar for your moonshine. To get drunk like a pig, that's all you want!"
"Shut up, imbecile. You should really try listening to and learning from your elders instead of overworking the remnants of your miniature brain. Let's go, Kon!"
Before Zigi could pull me through the door, I reminded him of an important matter we had yet to attend to.
"Ah yes, presents for the SS," he muttered, then glaring at Andrew, "what have you hidden for us under your mattress, you halfwit?"
"Nothing, Zigi, nothing. Maybe a couple of Gaulois, but they're such poor quality -"
"Let me see, you aristocratic thief!"
In no time Zigi had chased Andrew from his bunk, pulled back the mattress and was busily searching through his pile of belongings. Out came a couple of pairs of gloves, some scarves, a half-eaten chocolate bar, a can of coffee beans, someone's gold bridge with several teeth still attached to it, and four packs of English cigarettes.
"This should do for a starter," said Zigi, handing me the cigarettes and can of coffee. "Now we can go."
Leaving the room, we could hear Andrew wailing: "This is outright robbery! Thieves! It was all mine, legitimately traded for my own bread and margarine!"
A guard opened the main gate for us without any questions and we proceeded towards the SS barracks. There, waiting by a truck, stood a tall, thin man with a Hitler-like moustache, greying hair and eyebrows, and small eyes that darted in all directions. His long fingers were nervously shuffling a pile of papers which he immediately passed to Zigi.
"'See if you can make some sense out of these," he complained. "The German bureaucracy is getting worse and worse."
"Schmidt, this is Kon. He'll be your helper in supplying us with food. And don't worry - he's very smart and has a university education. You can trust him, perhaps even more than you can me. I'm sure he'll look after both our interests."
Thinking this was the time to make a good impression on my new partner, I let him know Zigi had informed me of his sons and by way of expressing sympathy, told him my parents were also lost to me somewhere in Siberia. Then I pulled the can of coffee from under my coat and presented it to him. This drew a sour look from Zigi, who had intended it for someone in central stores, but Schmidt was ecstatic.
"Real coffee! My God, I don't remember when I last had real coffee! Now there are substitutes for everything, you know -butter, marmalade, soap." Looking over his shoulder, he whispered, "I wish they'd make a substitute for Hitler, then maybe the war would be over."
Moments later the driver and another guard appeared. We jumped into the back of the truck with Schmidt and started for Mannheim.
What we encountered there seemed to me a miracle. Every-where stores were open for business while crowds of shoppers flocked through the streets. Had it not been for the number of military uniforms among the human traffic, I would have had difficulty spotting any sign of a country at war.
We pulled up between rows of military barracks on the outskirts of town and walked into the central office to proffer our requisition papers for food. The sergeant in charge, obviously wishing to appear important, admitted us only after a long wait. Seated behind his desk smoking a cigar, the man looked as wide as he was tall, his huge stomach protruding through his unbuttoned uniform and an officious, unfriendly expression on his round, red face. Schmidt also held the rank of sergeant, but in presenting our documents showed he was completely intimidated by this man.
"This requisition asks for too much sugar and margarine," said the sergeant. "You 'must know there is a shortage of these things in Germany. One cannot get even a decent cigar these days."
He peered out at us from behind his fat cheeks with a sort of question mark drawn on his brow, obviously expecting someone to present him with a box of hand-rolled Havanas. Missing this hint altogether, Schmidt took this opportunity to introduce us and thus relieve himself from carrying the conversation.
"My two helpers," he said, attempting to wave his hand in our direction. "They are responsible for the bookkeeping and can tell you exactly how much food is needed for our camp."
Not wishing to wait for further developments, I decided to interject my own thoughts on the matter.
. "I understand, sir, what you mean by bad cigars. I myself have quit smoking, but my uncle in France keeps sending me English cigarettes. Would you like to try one?"
The sergeant immediately snuffed out his cigar and taking a cigarette from a pack I had scooped from my pocket, lit it and inhaled deeply.
"Hmm, very nice. I did not think the English could make such good cigarettes. I smoke both cigarettes and cigars, you know, though I think I prefer, for real pleasure, a good cigar."
"If you like the cigarette, why not keep the pack," I said, handing it to him. "In my next letter, I will ask whether my uncle can send me some good English cigars. I understand Churchill likes smoking cigars."
"Yes, yes," the sergeant replied enthusiastically. "It might be very interesting to smoke the same cigars Churchill smokes. But I am holding you up - let me get your truck loaded. Fritz!"
The call was answered instantly by an SS man who marched before the sergeant's desk, clicked his heels and saluted smartly.
"Take these gentlemen to Bruno and instruct him to fill their truck according to this requisition. Also have him include some-thing special for my friends here."
Fritz took us outside and showed us to the barracks where we would receive bread, sugar and marmalade. On the way we collected potatoes and the ubiquitous turnips, every camp's staple food. We found the truck in the loading bay where a plump man, very much like the sergeant I had recently bribed, stood scowling at us. I had learned the meaning of this expression long before in Auschwitz: nothing special for me, nothing special for you.
I extended a fresh pack of cigarettes to Bruno, Fritz and Schmidt, each of whom welcomed my offer. This was enough to put a smile on Bruno's face. He immediately dismissed Fritz in an obvious attempt to corner any future hand-outs for himself. The rest of the pack I gave to Schmidt, signalling to Bruno that I had plenty more I could easily part with.
Bruno took us inside the warehouse and briefly showed us around. "Take whatever is necessary," he said, thrusting the requisition form at me. "Schmidt and I will be in my office. I haven't seen this fellow for quite a while."
Left alone, I grabbed a wooden cart and went off in search of bread. Zigi stood by and watched in fascination as I loaded the centre of the cart with boxes of sugar, then proceeded to surround this mound with loaves of bread.
"Your reputation as an illusionist was not exaggerated, Kon. Looks like we get our moonshine after all!"
We wheeled our cart to the loading dock only to find Bruno talking to Schmidt right in the middle of the corridor, barring our path to the truck. As we approached them Smidt's face went white as a sheet and Bruno resumed his unfriendly manner.
"Let's see what you got on your first trip," he said.
"Fifty loaves of bread, Mr. Bruno," I answered, pulling out another pack of cigarettes. "I noticed you liked my brand. Would you care to take the whole pack? I quit smoking last week but my uncle is still sending them. I must tell him to stop."
"Oh, don't do that!" he exclaimed, snatching the pack from my hand. "Such wonderful cigarettes! I have to smoke this terrible German brand - it's all we can get in the canteen. Wait a minute, I have something special for you, too."
He crossed the corridor, unlocked a door and disappeared momentarily, then emerged with three jars of marmalade in hand. "Apple jam made with real sugar, not like that beet root marmalade you usually get, sweetened with saccharin. Enjoy it."
"Thank you very much, Bruno. I'll have more cigarettes for you next time and perhaps other treats from my uncle."
The moment Bruno and Schmidt departed for the office, we hastily rolled our cart to the truck where Zigi handled the unpacking while I returned to the warehouse with the driver and SS guard.
"The warehouse manager is a friend of mine," I said, pointing to the empty carts. "He promised not to look at what you take, so be sure to grab an extra loaf of bread for yourselves and two for Schmidt - he has a big family to feed. You can do the same with the margarine, but no more than what I've said. We might be checked on the way out. Now hurry!"
With a smart "Thank you very much, sir!" they quickly seized a cart and ran towards the bread. I stood there wondering what an extra loaf of bread could do to people. After more than four years in concentration camps, an SS man was addressing me as "sir." Obviously the food shortage was afflicting all of Germany and not just the camps.
In the meantime Zigi had reappeared and together with the guard and driver we worked like beavers to stack as much food as possible into the carts. On our way out, we noticed that Bruno had "forgotten" to send someone to count the potato sacks and turnips. I watched the sweat trickle down Zigi's face as we hurriedly shifted the goods from cart to truck.
By the time we finished, the back of the truck was heaped so full we had to perch ourselves on boxes and sacks for the b
return to Camp Rose.
Before reaching camp, we made a brief stop for coffee at the home of one of Schmidt's daughters-in-law, a kind lady to whom we delivered a loaf of bread, margarine, marmalade and a sack of potatoes. It was dark by the time we unloaded provisions at the SS barracks, so I persuaded Schmidt to allow us to deliver the camp's supplies before retiring, instead of collecting our goods the next morning. He readily agreed, ignorant of the cartons of sugar hidden between the stacked bread.
The consistency of the soup in camp changed immediately from a watery liquid to one rich with potatoes. Although the prisoners received more food, on average, than those in Buchenwald, they were now permitted to receive Red Cross and private food parcels. Such deliveries were enormously important, for they frequently contained currency with which to barter for additional luxuries.
Neither Kazik, nor I had ever received food parcels; in the past, we had been lucky enough to manage on our own. But in these new surroundings, where we could organize more and better food than the majority of prisoners, gifts from outside were hardly necessary. Kazik also managed to secure for us reasonably warm clothing, though his hopes of finding valuables in the garments sent from Auschwitz never materialized.
Now that our basic needs had been satisfied, we again began to think about ways to escape. One day, while discussing our plans, we were surprised to find Father Martin awake and following our conversation with great interest.
"In case the two of you didn't know," he cautioned, "the commandant of this camp is Colonel Busch, a former Gestapo officer transferred here as punishment for an excess of tortures and murders that occurred under his command in Berlin. The gossip says he's related to someone close to Hitler - in other words, he's a mad dog. He personally shot the previous campelder and has announced that Zigi and his helpers will be next in line if anyone escapes. The only way out of here without endangering the rest of us is to make a run for it while at work."
This news only served to confirm my suspicions about every-thing Zigi had told us before our departure from Buchenwald.
"There," I said to Kazik, "are your mild-mannered SS men! Naturally we were not told of the pack's top monster."
But Kazik showed no sign of regret. "You must admit, Kon, that these guards are nothing like the Buchenwald butchers. That's what makes this place safe. Speaking frankly, we don't have to escape until the war ends."
"Unless," I retorted, "someone else escapes before us and this Gestapo fiend descends on his inmates with guns blazing!"
"Zigi has posted guards in the camp for that very reason," said Father Martin. "He could never rely on the SS guards. They spend most of the time sleeping, a fact of which the. Fat One is also aware."
Within days we had a demonstration of what he meant.
Zigi had again hosted us to an evening in his quarters at which we received the standard fare of fried potatoes. After the meal Kazik, Jan Groski, Frederick Jarossy and Zigi indulged them-selves in a round of bridge, Father Martin seated himself at a little table in the comer to work on his book, and Andrew took up his usual position on the top bunk. Adam Jankowski and I, having nothing better to do, were embroiled in a heated discussion about my Russian friends in Buchenwald, a topic that regretfully aroused both his cynicism and snobbery.
It was exceptional that Adam condescended to talk to me at all. A published poet and professor of Polish literature at the University of Krakow before the war, Jankowski fancied himself an arbiter of all things cultural and intellectual within the camp. This self-proclaimed status suited his eccentric appearance. Closely cropped grey hair sprouted from the top of his triangular-shaped head which seemed to extend directly into his neck, leaving no indication of a chin. Also, the deep furrow implanted in the centre of his forehead suggested that he was forever absorbed in thought. Though tall, his stooping posture made him look well beyond his fifty or so years.
"You must have an even lower cultural background than I expected," he told me, "to befriend Ukrainian peasants."
"And what makes you think you're so superior?" I asked. "Surely it couldn't be your incomprehensible poetry. Or are you perhaps related to our bunk bed prince?"
"I'll have you know my family dates back to the 15th Century, each succeeding generation blessed with strong intellectual abilities and heirs to a long, noble tradition."
"But Jan, you've not visited long enough in concentration camps to know of the noble minds I've encountered, many from very frugal backgrounds. My friend Ivan was a brilliant man."
Our argument might have digressed beyond the point of tedium had Zigi not suddenly turned from his cards to add his two cents worth.
"Yes indeed, Kon, good point, good point! Our friend Jan here knows nothing of what we've experienced. Why, I recall events that would make each of you - Kon and Kazik excepted, of course - all tremble like little puppies. Imagine that you were condemned to a bunker with 12 other men, packed so tightly no one could budge, suffocating, starving, deprived of water, everyone's pants full of shit - diarrhoea from hunger! Then to endure carrying the bodies of your executed friends, slipping in their blood, tumbling over their corpses staring up at you with a corpse's eyes, blood gushing from their mouths. What do you know of this, eh?"
Then turning to his bridge partners: "My apologies, gentle-men, for the interruption. Sometimes I succumb to sentimentality. I said three no trump - anybody object?"
As if Zigi's contribution were not enough the white-faced young prince also had a word to share. Descending from his bunk, he squeaked: "You know, Uncle Jan, that many old guys like you were rejuvenated in camp hospitals. All done hygienically. First they were marched naked a kilometre in freezing temperatures, then given hot showers and marched back. Their penises grew twice as long - each a solid, shining icicle. The SS men laughed their --2'
',Shut up, you!" screamed Zigi. "You miserable little creep, why don't you tell Uncle Jan what kapo Bruno made you do for your extra food and privileges!"
Andrew only grimaced and hissed something, withdrawing back to his lair. At that moment one of Zigi's German security men knocked rapidly and entered, his face flushed and rigid.
"Sir Campelder, three Russians have escaped from camp!" he reported excitedly, the special band on his arm trembling in a salute.
Zigi threw down his cards and bounded through the door-way, the security man and several of us following close behind. It was already dark, but within seconds all outside lights had been switched on and orders given for the prisoners to fall in for roll call.
From a nearby building we could hear Zigi shouting to his guards: "You bloody idiots! Don't just stand there picking your noses! Run through the camp and sniff those bastards out! If you don't find them immediately the Fat One will shoot you all!"
During roll call it was discovered our Russians were missing. The security men scoured every inch of the camp and after searching all possible hiding places, returned with one Russian in tow who had been sleeping in the back of the kitchen. Zigi walked quietly toward the man, looked him over, then struck him in the stomach unexpectedly with all his strength. When the man bent over in pain, Zigi grabbed his head and smashed it against his raised knee, breaking his nose.
"This man was not trying to escape," said a security man, attempting to pull Zigi away from his victim. "He was just tired and fell asleep there because the wall was warm from the kitchen oven."
Zigi's face flamed the colour of his hair. "Don't tell me what he was doing! He was hiding to escape! Bind his hands and hold him there until I come back."
He then marched through the main gate to the house of Commandant Busch. About five minutes later the two of them emerged, the Fat One wearing only pants, shirt and cap with a riding whip in hand and an overcoat thrown over his shoulder. As he ran to keep up with Zigi, his large stomach wobbled over the belt of his trousers. He looked like raging fury made flesh.
The commandant first went up to the small group of security men, lashing at them left and right with his whip. "I'll have you all shot, you lazy swines! What kind of damned security are you! And where is the man who tried to escape!"
"Here he is," said Zigi, pointing to the bleeding Russian who, released by the security men, was attempting to distance himself from the commotion. He was immediately grabbed and pushed in front of Commandant Busch who pounced on him like a mad dog, kicking and beating him with his whip. In the mean-time Zigi walked calmly to the side of a barracks and came back with a piece of iron pipe in his hand.
"Give that to me!" puffed Busch. "I'll kill the bastard!"
Zigi obligingly handed the pipe to the commandant and stood back to watch him deliver blow after to blow. When the man finally fell to the ground, the Fat One jumped on him with both feet while he held the bloody pipe above his head, striking the lifeless body yet a few more times. Then he tossed the pipe aside and proceeded to walk towards the gate.
"I will deal with the security men tomorrow," he gasped to Zigi as he passed by.
"But sir, we have caught this escaping prisoner with the help of my security force. It is hard to say how many could have escaped had it not been for their alertness to duty."
"Oh, I see," said the commandant, still puffing heavily. "Then let this be an example to the rest of the men. Leave the escapee on the ground where he is until tomorrow. I want everyone to see what your commandant does to any man who attempts to escape!"
When the Fat One had walked far enough away to be out of earshot, Zigi turned to stare into the small crowd only to see eyes wide with the horror of what they had witnessed.
"What are you standing there for? Don't you realize that if it weren't for me, all of you would be lying there beside this culprit? Well, I too have had enough. If anyone else escapes, don't call on me to defend you. Next time you bastards can take the beatings. Now get lost!"
He then wheeled about and began walking towards our barracks, a signal for the few of us still standing in the doorway to disappear quickly inside. We stood watching him as he entered, anticipating yet another outburst. But he simply took up his seat at the table and inspected his cards.
"All right, the alarm is over," he announced. "Whose deal was it? I can't stand being interrupted at bridge."
Noticing that none of his partners had any interest in resuming the game, Zigi made a grim face and again tossed his cards aside.
"Okay, go back to your burrows, you cowardly bunch of misguided nobility. Kon, send me the Frenchman with some food - I feel hungry."
Before I could make a move, Frederick decided to break the ice. "You know the poor guy wasn't trying to escape. But you went ahead anyway and murdered, with the Fat One, an innocent man."
"Oh my, oh my!" peeped Andrew's voice out of nowhere. "And what would Uncle Frederick have preferred? To take the place of this miserable Russian Musselman and become himself a pile of mincemeat?"
"You unfortunate imitation of humanity," retorted Jankowski. "What do you know, you were asleep in your bed."
"Goodness, Uncle begins to show some life. Dear oh dear! Well let me tell you, my venerable imitation of Hamlet, that although you may not see me, I can see all things at all times."
By now Zigi had risen from his chair and taken the centre of the floor, directing a hard look at each of us in turn. "This time the squeaky hiccup is right. It was a simple question of one life or ten - including your own. You know damn well how the Fat One dealt with our predecessors. This man doesn't joke!"
In the pause following Zigi's speech I slipped from the room, instructed the French chef to prepare a pot of food, and returned moments later with leftovers of Hungarian ragout which I placed on the hotplate. Zigi did not wait for it to warm up, but grabbed the pot and ravenously polished off its contents.
Andrew looked on delighted. "Good work makes for a good appetite, doesn't it Zigi?"
After this incident everyone's relations with Zigi became very strained. Open criticism was far too dangerous; the only alternative was silent disapproval, which from veteran prisoners such as Kazik and I, really meant something. Unable to find consolation in Andrew's unwavering support, Zigi called me aside one day.
"I think it's about time we organized more potatoes. Schmidt is taking most of them for the SS kitchen. We've got to make another trip to Mannheim bearing proper gifts."
With the assistance of Andrew's margarine, which we swapped for English cigarettes, and a few cigars Zigi had organized from somewhere, we came back from Mannheim once again fully loaded. This time we carried not only an excess of potatoes and turnips but also 20 kilograms of margarine. Under Zigi's orders, an extra five kilograms of margarine was added daily to the soup as an alternative to the riskier move of increasing the prisoners' rations. The addition of a little more fat to their miserable diet was well received; Zigi's previous behaviour was almost forgotten and in time we resumed our regular bridge parties.
A few days after our second food run Zigi reminded me of his plans to build a distillery. "It's almost Christmas and I was hoping we could celebrate it with a proper drink. We have no copper tubing, but with your knowledge of engineering maybe you can come up with a substitute."
I assured him I would try to think of something and with the Frenchman's help, set about the task. We first procured some potatoes, flour and sugar, preparing from these ingredients a mash which we allowed to ferment in a metal container. This concoction was then covered with a bigger pot placed upside down over the container to act as a condensation barrier, and slowly heated on Zigi's hotplate. Since the hotplate was much smaller than both pots, we were able to catch the drops of condensed alcohol on a tray beneath the element. To prevent the condensing pot from overheating, we mounted on top of it a third pot full of ice.
Though I was very proud of my design and Zigi equally enthusiastic, the amount of alcohol produced was so small it never exceeded the amount each of us tasted during the distilling process.
While working on the still, I spent a good deal of time in Zigi's room discussing - when he and Andrew were away - his treatment of the Russian prisoner falsely accused of trying to escape. Among those of us who condemned Zigi, Jankowski was the least compromising.
"That man claims to be an officer but where the hell is his honour? I think he's a fraud!"
"It's certainly a tragic situation," said Frederick. "He is clearly a product of his environment. If I'd gone through that hell hole Auschwitz as Zigi did, who knows how warped I might have become?"
"But look at Kazik and Kon," insisted Groski. "They went through the same hell but don't go around killing people."
Jankowski's stare fixed on me. "I'm sorry to have to tell you this, Kon, but I think you're no better than Zigi. You claim to be a professional officer though you behave more like a thief. I may be only a reserve officer, but I'd never stoop to stealing."
"Maybe," I said. "Still, you eat stolen potatoes fried in stolen margarine, cooked in a stolen pan heated on a stolen hotplate. All the food you eat is stolen for you. It seems your officer's honour allows you to accept it, even from Zigi.
"In Auschwitz we fought a different kind of war with different ideas of what is honourable. I wonder how honourable you would be if you were cold, dying of hunger and tortured by the most sophisticated methods, not wanting to betray your colleagues. Yes, we stole things - food, medicine, even a short wave radio, anything we could use to defend ourselves against the enemy. You cannot judge fairly the behaviour of others unless you have lived through such insanity yourself."
Before Jankowski could formulate a reply, our conversation was cut short by Zigi's return. He inspected the still, drained whatever alcohol was in the tray and downed it in one gulp.
"Good stuff, Kon," he pronounced, smacking his lips. "But at this rate we'll be sucking our thumbs for Christmas instead of quaffing good vodka. However, I might have an answer. The Fat One tells me he's out of schnapps, so I made a deal with him. If he gets us alcohol or a still that works, I'll make him the golden drink of the gods. Which reminds me - anyone here know how to make krupnik?"
A broad smile beamed from Frederick's typically sullen face. "Get me the proper ingredients and I'll prepare you a Hungarian style krupnik that makes even the Polish kind seem tame!"
Zigi placed an arm around Frederick's shoulder and together they departed for Busch's house, returning several hours later with news that all had gone well.
"This man's a genius," exclaimed Zigi, ushering Frederick through the door. "With only some vodka, honey and spices, our creation impressed the hell out of the Fat One. In fact, he liked it so much he's promised us the materials for a still, to make sufficient quantities for his Christmas party."
Sure enough, within a couple of days we received a complete set of distilling equipment confiscated by the Gestapo from a nearby village. To ensure that we had an ample supply of ingredients, Busch sent us on another trip to Mannheim, only this time he phoned ahead to the local Gestapo. When we arrived at central stores, the sergeant in charge was so terrified he hardly knew how to please us. He offered us cigars, passed us a bottle of cognac and ordered Bruno to pack our truck with as much potatoes, flour and sugar as it could carry. In the meantime, Frederick joined us from his shopping tour with barrels of honey and a wide variety of spices.
In the end, all of us benefited from this excursion. Busch used his large supply of Frederick's krupnik to improve his standing among higher ranking officers who began paying him regular social visits, while surplus potatoes mixed in a thick soup fed the prisoners for a long time to come. Needless to say, we made enough moonshine to last us through the Christmas season.
On one occasion, while Busch was away, I was delivering four bottles of krupnik to the commandant's house when the door was answered, not by his SS valet, but by his wife. She was a small, very pretty woman with golden hair braided into a long tress and so much younger than Busch she might easily have been mistaken for his daughter. Giving me a friendly smile, she led me into the kitchen where I deposited the bottles on a broad, wooden table.
"So this is what you call krupnik," she said, picking up a bottle and inspecting it closely. "It's a very nice, sweet drink. I had no idea prisoners lived better than we do. You know, of course, that Germans do not have such good things in their houses. My husband tells me you also have Swiss chocolate, real coffee, Danish cheeses and English cigarettes."
Her remark was so unexpected and delivered with such sincerity it left me speechless. How could this young woman have lived next door to a concentration camp without noticing the true conditions within the fence? She looked so youthful and innocent. Then a thought crossed my mind that this might be a trap. Recalling the young and pretty wife of Buchenwald's deputy commandant who made lampshades from human skin, I decided to be noncommittal.
"'It's not as good a life as you think, madame. We are concentration camp prisoners and you should know what that means."
"Yes, I know you are enemies of the Third Reich and that you're being punished for that," she replied, her expression changing to one of concern. "But when I meet you individually, you do not look like enemies. Why is that?"
This was one discussion I wished to avoid. Looking about me, I spotted through the doorway to the living room a beautiful baby grand piano with the music of a Beethoven sonata open on it.
"Forgive me for asking,"' I said, pointing towards the piano, "but is it you or your husband who plays?"
A smile immediately returned to her face. "I play, though my husband knows more about music than I do. Do you also play?"
"Yes - I mean, I did once. I've not touched a keyboard for a long time and have probably forgotten everything."
Even as I said this, I was itching to try the piano.
"I'm sure that you, being a Pole, played Chopin," she said, walking to the piano and lifting some music from a small pile. "His nocturnes are so beautiful, don't you think? Why don't you see how much you remember?"
I could not resist the temptation. Taking the music she held out to me, I seated myself at the piano and started to play. I became so engrossed in the music and the instrument's beautiful sound that I failed to notice Busch standing in a doorway listening.
When I finished he suddenly applauded, saying: "You are out of practice, but your interpretation is very good."
I leapt from the piano bench, my whole body trembling, and began apologizing for the intrusion while in the same breath explaining that I had left some bottles of krupnik for him in the kitchen. Then I backed out the door with the excuse that much work was to be done, and bolted.
In the days following I reflected frequently on our awkward encounter, trying to make sense of how a man who killed with such fury and cruelty might still comprehend Chopin's delicate feelings of love. At moments I thought him a fraud and preferred to forget the whole event. But then it would occur to me: what if this man were actually being sincere? Could it be that we shared an attachment to and appreciation for the beauty of life that music evokes? How was this possible?
As Christmas approached, Father Martin took charge of preparations for the Christmas Eve dinner and service.
Up until the war, the religious significance of a Polish Christmas Eve dinner had become obscured by the length and richness of its tradition. For believers and unbelievers alike, the feast would be meatless. As for the fasting that was supposed to take place until evening, only Father Martin would observe it.
Father Martin had received some altar bread from Poland; cooking without meat was simple because there was none to be had. Zigi did insist that herring be served before dinner with moonshine as the customary appetizer, and shortly before December 24th went to Mannheirn with Schmidt. Here turned triumphantly with two salted herrings and even a small freshwater fish. Though normally a meal for one, the traditional Polish fare we could anticipate enhanced our festive mood.
Busch gave Zigi permission to chop down a tree in the nearby woods and erect it in the middle of the camp. We had wondered how to decorate it but the moment it was up, French, Italian and Polish prisoners surrounded the tree, each bearing a special ornament made up of Christmas memorabilia sent from home or of prized personal belongings. Electricians among us painted ordinary light bulbs in different colours and strung the wire from a nearby building. Surprisingly, it worked. No one was electrocuted nor did the tree catch fire.
Finally Christmas Eve arrived.
After dark the Christian prisoners gathered around the illuminated tree and began to sing Christmas carols, each in his own language. One carol could be sung by all: Stille Nacht. Only a year ago, I could not have conceived of such a possibility. But now, joined in song with my colleagues, I could hear even the SS guards singing from the towers.
Eventually the cold and frost drove us from our celebration back to our barracks, but our tree continued to glow until late into the night. The only discordant note was Father Martin's discovery that two polished wooden crosses made for the graves of men who had died that morning had been stolen from their coffins.
Andrew, who had spent the evening draped across his bed, observed the commotion with a wide yawn. "Stop making such a fuss. Anyway, it wasn't fair that poor old Goldman, a faithful Jew, should have a cross erected on his tomb by an atheist like Dmitri while a Jesuit priest prays for his soul. I'm sure he'd turn in his grave."
"How did you know it was Goldman who died?" asked Father Martin.
"It was my business to know. And Ivan, the dentist. Goldman had two beautiful gold bridges in his mouth. We were very kind to him -Ivan could have removed them within seconds but I ordered him to wait until the patient was dead. Or almost dead."
"You, you..." sputtered the priest, growing red with anger. "Now I know, God forgive your sins, why his face was smashed and bloody. You and Ivan murdered the poor man before he could die in peace!"
"Now, now, dear Father Martin, you would not have wanted me to commit a graver sin by desecrating a dead body, would you?" Andrew sneered.
"Let us pray on this holy day. I cannot hear any more of this!"
Father Martin began to pray aloud, then stopped suddenly. "So you stole the crosses, too?"
'Not exactly with my own hands, Father. Haven't you noticed the room is especially warm for our holy Christmas Eve dinner?"
This time even Zigi had had enough. "Shut up, you punk! Why spoil Christmas Eve for everyone with your sick behaviour? Let's just start! Martin - do your job!"
Father Martin walked to the table and said a long prayer in Latin over the altar bread. He broke it, gave a piece to everyone and wished us a speedy return home. He also approached Andrew, who silently took his portion.
"Well, now that we've got that over with, let's dig in," said Zigi. "Kon, give us a fill-up of beautiful moonshine. Eat, drink and be merry, but take it easy on the entrée - a mug of vodka and a mouthful of fish should be about right!"
After two full mugs of moonshine, which by my estimate contained at least 70% pure alcohol, Zigi waxed sentimental. "Oh Lithuania, my Fatherland . . ." he recited, only to be interrupted by a squeal of laughter from the prince.
"Forgive him, Lord, for he knows not of what he speaks," squeaked Andrew.
"You uneducated idiot," Zigi slurred. "The poem is Polish -or perhaps they never taught you in the asylum that Poland and Lithuania were once united under one king.'
"Of course I knew that. But you've never even seen this place you call your fatherland."
The exchange proved too much for Jankowski who stepped in as the final authority. "Neither of you knows anything about poetry! One requires a soul to understand it and you lost your souls in Auschwitz. You're both on the level of dogs or at best, caged apes!"
By then the moonshine had influenced everyone, including Father Martin, and all tongues began wagging at the same time. Frederick, who lent his support to Jankowski, proceeded to give a performance of King Lear. Zigi plopped his head on the table and cried, sorry for himself and the whole world. Andrew, having dropped from his bed, bickered with Jankowski while attempting to play a feeble fool to Frederick's Lear. Father Martin, sitting with me and Groski, was busily persuading the criminal lawyer to repent his sins or prepare for damnation.
Groski, in spite of his legal background, was not a talkative man; I had rarely heard him volunteer his opinions on any subject unless asked directly. Still, I had heard enough to know that his mind was pragmatic and logical and his religious outlook that of an agnostic.
To provoke him, I asked: "Aren't you afraid little devils will boil your soul in oil down in hell's kitchen?"
"With what's left of me, they would not get much of a meal out of it," he laughed dryly.
"Don't you believe, Jan, that you have a soul?" asked Father Martin.
"What is soul? When I die, my body, my brain and with it my whole personality will just rot away. Nothing will remain of what you and I know as Jan Groski. And if there were a shred of soul left behind, it would have nothing in common with me."
The priest pressed on. "How can you tell there is no spirit which is you? If you believe in God, you must believe what Christ said about life after death."
"Martin, be reasonable! I don't want to upset you, but even assuming that Christ is God, he said it almost 2,000 years ago. People have a tendency to distort what they heard the day before. Why shouldn't all this be simply a grand fabrication of human fantasy?"
At this point Zigi raised his head, lifted his eyes in our direction and cried out: "Martin, I can see the devil hiding behind the bunk bed! I have sinned so much, he wants my soul! Pray for me!"
He then pulled himself from his chair, teetering back and forth on unsteady legs and shouted at the bed: "You will get shit, not my soul! Zigi is going to outsmart you!"
Unable to keep his balance, he collapsed to the floor, curled up in the foetus position and fell fast asleep.
Andrew slithered over to the snoring campelder and walked around him like a dog sniffing his master but unsure of what to do. Then he took a still burning cigarette out of Zigi's hand, stuck it in his mouth, turned slowly around and crawled up the bunk bed into his nest.
That was the end of the Christmas party.