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'Ten Hours': A Holocaust Short Story

1Lit.com Ezine
In commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day



Aushwitz-Birkenau, Poland; Photograph © Erich Hartmann / MAGNUM PHOTOS



"The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again."

George Santayana




It had often been cold. Today, however, it was a different story altogether. The temperature must have been at least minus five, the door was frozen solid, and icicles hung from the ceiling of the cell. Water dripped from them at two second intervals. Tap, tap, tap. It used to drive him crazy, but now he was immune to it. Ten hours.
It was probably some time towards the end of February, 1942. He wasn't sure: the last time he had had any real idea of the date was back home in Berlin, four years ago. Then, they'd come in the middle of the night to round up the men in the Jewish quarter and he'd been dragged from his wife and children. He had heard nothing of them since.
He was a philosophy lecturer and thought of the times when he'd return from the university to find his wife, Maria, waiting on the doorstep, the children in her arms. They'd spend the cold winter evenings on the settee in front of the coal-fire. As Maria rested her head on his shoulder, they would while away the hours talking about their day and listening to the wireless. The children would be playing at their feet.
He looked outside. The morning's clear skies had given way to a mass of dense grey clouds. The snow drifted down with ever Increasing ferocity. In the distance a dove tried to brave the conditions.
He was stopped in his thoughts by the sound of boots at the door. A key turned and three bolts were snapped back. After some shoving and kicking, the ice jamming the door was shattered. It creaked open. He prayed it not to be Kleist. His heart was beating rapidly.
Kleist marched in. Behind him followed a guard Yossi hadn't seen before. 'What did you say to Hans yesterday?' Kleist bellowed as he moved towards the prisoner.
'My food?' Yossi murmured.
'F--- your food, you son of a b----!' He was a young man, in his early twenties, tall, with a soft, pleasant face. Yes, he was not unattractive, the guard with Kleist. Nine hours.
He couldn't have been more different from his companion. Kleist was a portly middle-aged man. A fat nose and diminutive brown eyes dominated his freckled face. 'I can't even take a break now. I don't come for one day, one f---ing day, and you're already throwing insults at me. I'll give you some food . . .' He punched Yossi in the abdomen and he fell against the wall.
'W-What insults? I didn't,' Yossi said. 'Don't give me that "what insults"!' he snapped. 'All you motherf---ing Yids are the same.'
'I didn't say anything!' Yossi replied. Then, all of sudden, he broke into tears. He realized what was coming and couldn't take it today. He begged the guard not to beat him: 'I'm s-sorry. Please don't hit me. I didn't mean it . . . it w-wasn't about you . . .' Kleist grabbed his hair and flung him across the cell.
He knew the minute it had come out of his mouth he'd have to pay for it. He had meant it. Hans had brought his lunch - it was Kleist's day off - and he had been thinking all morning about his family. Cursing the guards in his mind wasn't enough. He had wanted them to know: 'You bastard - you're all bastards!'
Kleist pulled out a knife from his belt. He slashed it at Yossi's face. Yossi managed to save himself - just - by stumbling back onto the wall. But now he was cornered.
He concentrated on the knife as it closed in on him. It eyed him devilishly and moved nearer and nearer. 'Sir - don't!' the other guard pleaded. Yossi trembled. Kleist thrust the knife into him. He dropped to the floor and a thick redness flowed from his stomach.
Everything was happening so quickly now. His head was spinning, he was begging for mercy 'I'm sorry! I'm sorry!', he could see a white haziness coming down, the knife was being thrust again . . .
'What the hell,' Kleist muttered, 'you're not worth it,' and turned back.
'Clear the shit and let's get out of here,' Kleist ordered his companion, gesturing to a tin box in a corner. The guard walked over and picked up the container. This, according to the rules, was supposed to be slopped out every other day, but Kleist, who never obeyed any rules, only used to do it once a week. Recently, he hadn't done it for over a fortnight and when Yossi had complained it was overspilling and stank, all he had got as a reply was a kick in the stomach.
The guard began walking out with the box, but then his senior summoned him back: 'On second thoughts, give it to me. I'll clear it.' He snatched the box, and dumped its contents over Yossi. Kleist's laughter echoed around the cell as the wastage rolled down the prisoner's body.
He finally stopped guffawing and signalled to the guard that they were finished. Yossi cleared his eyes and stared at the two of them as they walked out. No food. Another beating. Begging for mercy, reduced to tears again. Just then, the young guard glanced back and their pupils met for a tenth, a hundredth of a second. 'I'm just a conscript. I have nothing against you or the Jews,' his morose eyes seemed to be indicating, 'I want to get out this hell as bad as you.'
As Kleist turned round to close the door, Yossi noticed the sign on his shoulder. The emblem of peace and goodwill, the symbol of hope and joy. He stared at the red and black swastika. It had certainly given him much joy. The door clanged shut and the three bolts were snapped back. Eight hours.
Yossi's eyes remained transfixed on the door long after it had shut. Kleist had hesitated. Why? Why hadn't he stabbed him the second time? Yossi wouldn't have minded. He couldn't understand why were they keeping him alive. To keep him suffering because he had campaigned against Hitler and written a couple of lousy anti-Nazi pamphlets? He smiled. He WANTED to die, but they wouldn't let him.
Were they dead? He knew the Nazis had rounded up the women and children a few hours later. But what had they done to them? One of the guards, Schwaz, said the women and kids were taken to Treblinka and had been . . . he didn't, he wouldn't, he couldn't believe him. Time and time again he'd asked God about his family. Where was Maria? and Johann? And his dear little Tanya? But God never seemed to hear.
Where was He, Yossi wondered?
Where was this Omniscient, Omnipresent, Omnipotent? True he had sinned - who hadn't? - but is this what he deserved? Maria was an agnostic and would argue God had deserted the Jews, He didn't deserve to be worshipped. But he would always defend the Lord. He wasn't that strict with the rituals or dietary regulations, but he had never compromised his belief in God. A question entered his mind - had He forsaken the Jews? Ordinarily, he would have thrown the thought to the back of his head, but today he pondered.
He asked God why it was always his people, the Jews, who were persecuted, why they were the ones who were made the scapegoats for other peoples' inabilities to cope with the ebbs and flows of life. They had been fleeing oppression for four thousand years. Now they were being wiped out by persecutors far worse than any Egyptians or Romans. Why God why? He got no reply. He had never got a reply.
Yossi examined his stomach. Blood was trickling out of the wound. It streamed between his ribs and dripped onto the floor. Suddenly, he began experiencing spasms of pains in his abdomen. His chest shook violently. He dropped to the ground and a gush of vomit flowed out.
His ribs were pulling in, suffocating him. He rolled on the floor, coughing and spluttering, gasping for air. Then he stopped moving. His head dropped. His legs ceased to move. And the cell turned silent. Seven hours.
He was brought to consciousness a couple of hours later. One by one, he began moving the parts of his body, his legs, his arms, his fingers. The pains had lessened.
He lifted his head and from his lying position looked outside. It was dark. A wonderless, unexceptional moon hung in the middle of the picture. Around it the sky had cleared leaving behind a black mass and, all those millions of miles away, hundreds of sleeping stars. He gazed at the vastness. How had this so wonderful a creation been made? For a creation there had to have been a creator, a creator so great he had built the sky, the stars, the sun, the moon, everything. So magnificent an architect, faultless in His design.
But then Yossi sat up. Was this the same Creator who had made Auschwitz and Treblinka which the guards had told him about? Was this the same Creator who looked down and saw his 'Chosen People' being exterminated, yet did nothing? This supposedly all-caring, all-protecting deity saw their suffering, heard their pleas for help, yet remained unmoved.
'God's a funny old creature,' Yossi's uncle, Levin, a rabbi, used to say, 'His help comes when one least expects it. If you keep your faith, in the end when you really need Him, He'll come to your aid.' As the owls twooed in the midnight sky, he though now questioned: did God hear? Did He even exist? Four hours.


The product of Christian European 'civilisation'



* * * * * * *


'Get up you Christ-Killer.'
Standing at his feet, wearing a grey winter's cloak, was Kohl, the camp leader. Behind him stood several men, not just guards but seniors as well. He only recognised two of them in the dimness of the cell: Hans and Schwaz, from the morning and night shifts. There didn't seem to be the evening shift: Kleist.
Kohl peered down at him huddled in a corner. He said, 'So you're the great Yossi are you? You don't look very great to me.' A few sniggers passed around the cell. This was only the second time Yossi had met Kohl. He couldn't make out his face in the darkness: a featureless silhouette with two impassive eyes stared at him.
He had been itching to ask Kohl a question for months, a question to which the other guards only reply would be, 'Ask the camp leader.' But now he couldn't pluck the courage. He finally mumbled: 'W-Why are you keeping me a-alive?'
Kohl didn't answer. 'Take him!' he commanded in a gruff voice. He grabbed Yossi and flung him over to two guards standing in the doorway. The guards, seeing he was in no condition to walk, dragged him out of the cell and then along a series of corridors. The air was thick in the narrow passages and there was the same nauseating stench as four years ago when he was being dragged into the cell. Behind them followed a brigade of officers, now having grown as others had been called from adjoining rooms. One hour.
They finally turned into a vast yard blanketed in snow. Yossi half-staggered, half-crawled to the centre, where the guards dropped him. He lifted his head out of the snow and spat some dirt from his mouth. It was dawn. A biting westerly wind whistled in the air around him. The sight of hundreds of scrawny prisoners assembled at the perimeters of the yard frightened him. They reminded him of the miners at Duisburg.
Johann had an attraction for mining. He had once said: 'Dad, do you know what I want to be when I grow up? A miner.' A miner! And what would he do with all the money he'd earn? 'I will make you and mum and Tanya happy. I'll buy you a car [he opened his hands out] a big, big car, then you won't have to get the bus every morning, and I'll get mum a kitchen with a sink and a tap like Jurgen's mum's got.'
He examined the crowd. 'And I'll buy Tanya lots of dolls.' They were all Jews. They were naked but for a few rags; most were bald. From them emanated an air of empathy, as though they wanted to help him, save him. But the emaciated skeletons wouldn't be able to save themselves, what could they do for him? The pathetic creatures would march into an incinerator any day now.
Blood began to trickle out of his stomach wound again. He was perspiring heavily. The wound was letting out everything, it was as though his stomach was being ripped apart. He clenched his teeth. The pain! His head was aching and felt like it was about to explode. He passed out as he was kicked over to a contraption of some kind. Half hour.
Brought to consciousness by a bucketful of water, Yossi found himself being held up on a chair by two soldiers. It was brighter now. The onlookers' attention was still on him and the few guards in the centre of the yard.
Kohl, on a wooden platform to his left, was delivering a speech. Though half-unconscious, Yossi managed to make out some of the words: ' . . . Look at this German-hater! . . . As the Führer would say, better not to have been born than be born a Jew! I personally will make sure every one of you dies suffering, dies a death worse than that of a dog . . .'
The camp leader's words were drowned out by the sound of hailstones showering down. The prisoners scrambled to cover themselves with their rags. In the hubbub, Yossi's eyes were drawn to the swastika on Kohl's uniform. It had given him so much pain, so much anguish. It had brought his people to their knees. But then he glanced back at the crowd. He began to think.
Hadn't the Torah mentioned a period when the world would turn against his people and persecute them just because of their Jewishness? Didn't it talk of a time when they would be subjected to torture and massacre on an unparalleled scale?
Yes!
This was the time his people had waited for four centuries, the period before the coming of the Messiah!. The Nazis, the concentration camps . . . they were what the Torah had been talking about.
Their enemies might be able to inflict cruelties on them now, but God would give them their just deserts in the afterlife. He hadn't betrayed them; this was a stage in His plan. The Messiah would come and God's Chosen People would finally attain the peace and happiness they had never had. Yossi felt a cloak wrapping around him; he was warm and the pains didn't hurt anymore.
Kohl got off the platform and walked to the centre of the yard. He circled Yossi, his bespectacled blue eyes perusing him. Yossi yelled 'You bastard!' and spat on his face.
Kohl didn't show any emotion. He wiped the saliva off and nodded to a soldier standing behind the Jew. A noose was put around Yossi's neck and the chair beneath him kicked . . . Zero hours.


© 1991 Nadeem Azam, 1Lit.com, Inc., London. All rights reserved.


"The German culture was producing such voluntaristic killers... perhaps this was a society that had undergone other important fundamental changes, particularly cognitive and moral ones. The study of the Holocaust's perpetrators thus provides a window through which German society can be viewed and examined in a new light."

Hitler's Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen

"Mischief has become apparent on land and sea due to peoples own doing, so that He lets them taste some of the consequences of their deeds in order to let them turn back."

Holy Quran, Surah 30, ar-Rum


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