Read Part I here.
My clogs crunch against the gravel. The SS officer at the gate peers at me through the barbed wire. I don’t want to do it, but I have to stay in character. I raise my right hand up, fingers pointing ahead. “Sieg Heil”. For a second, I don’t recognize my own voice.
The guard relaxes his stance. “Guten-tag Fraulein”. His eyes crawl on me, from my white nurse’s cap to the bold ‘Deutsches Rotes Kreuz’ in red on my armband. I squirm in place.
“Ihre papiere, bitte”, he demands.
His eyes search my face, like a psychiatrist who is trained to tell if a person is lying. Although I’ve forged my nurse’s ID to perfection, I feel my throat constrict.
“Fraulein, ihre papiere, bitte”, he sounds slightly irritated.
“Ja, sicher”, my voice is a squeak.
As soon as I step inside the gates, a stench greets me. No, slaps me. A stench so strong, it seems to have taken over the atmosphere. The place reeks of tobacco, grime, chemicals and death. I know I will remember this smell forever.
The path is flanked by walls of barbed wire on either side. Behind them are red brick buildings with white windows. Windows which have been sealed shut and blackened, so neither sunshine nor hope can enter.
Another guard sits in his high tower like an angry demigod looking over his creation. A few women and children in their blue and white striped uniforms and shaved heads stare vacantly at us. Their eyes are like little broken windows. These children have probably seen more horrors in their tiny lifetimes than I’ve seen in my entire life.
The stench grows stronger all of a sudden. We pass Block 1 when a truck roars past us.
I first see shoes, hundreds of them, and then the bodies that were wearing them. They weren’t even stacked, they were dumped. A stray hand here, a lifeless bluish face there. The truck speeds on and tips out its cargo a few blocks ahead. Corpses fall like sandbags.
We stop in our tracks. I comb my insides to see what just died within me. Shock and horror might come later, but I am numb at this moment. Bile bubbles up again. The guard waits as I retch and throw up on the gravel.
For one reckless second, I want to run, abandon this project. I want to get away from the stench, and the flippant murder of humanity. Back to the comforting rhythm of my pendulums and grandfather clocks.
A small contingent of prisoners marching down the lane diverts my attention.
They’re skeletons with just a spark of life in their eyes. They are beaten at every step for no particular reason. All of a sudden, the guard leaves me to my misery and rushes towards them. He picks out a scrawny man from the middle of the group, lands a few blows on him and pulls him aside. He then turns his attention on a woman from the very back of the group and pulls her out too.
Those faces look familiar. I’ve studied their photos so many times! It’s them! Andre and Irene! One bony neck in each hand, he drags them along mercilessly. Where is he taking them?
This is my opportunity. With the guard gone, no one is looking at me. I follow them at a distance. They turn left. I hide against the wall and tilt my head to see where they’re headed. He opens a door and pushes them inside. He then shuts the door and waits outside, smoking. I have a bad feeling about this. My mind is racing. I have to find out what’s going on in there.
Sheer dumb luck strikes and I find a loose slat on the other side of the building. It’s dark inside, but for a shaft of light from the roof falling right on their heads.
They’re on a bench, holding hands and whispering something.
Andre has his hand wrapped around Irene. He says something and then kisses her forehead tenderly. Irene’s eyes light up when she looks up at him. A few minutes later, the guard knocks letting them know it’s time to go back to being prisoners.
Love is a weed growing in the most unexpected places, but even weeds can grow into generations of flowers with a touch of humanity. I pick up a flat, vaguely heart-shaped rock. It’s time to head home.