Zalman Leventhal lay in his bunk smoking a cigarette, sluggish with schnapps. It hadn't taken many swigs of it to get him there, either. Despite a full head of reddish hair, unusual for a Jew--it earning him the nickname "Irish" growing up--he'd never been much of a drinker, certainly not to the extent the real Irish were said to be.
Through a window he watched a light snow flutter down. The weather had taken a sharp turn for the colder since his arrival at the unloading ramp four days ago. Two coal-burning stoves kept the room warm.
Their snug accommodations had him at a loss. Clean, spacious, well-appointed, a platoon of SS would have been happy to call the place home. The floor was dark linoleum, the walls a white stucco, at one end of the room a large, oaken slab of a table at which to eat. Each man had his own bunk complete with pillows and fresh linen. From the ceiling, fluorescent lights dispensed a uniform white glow, while at the other end of the barracks, partitioned off for privacy, shone a three-toilet, enameled beauty of a bathroom. Leventhal wasn't the only man wondering what the Germans were up to.
There were fifty of them, all from the Ciechanow transport, all in their twenties or late-teens. They'd been selected, they were told, on the basis of their ages and physiques for a permanent work detail--the Sonderkommando, or Special Squad--their keepers assuring them they'd be cared for.
Nor for a change were the Krauts lying. Not only had they wound up in this three-star hotel of a hut but been issued fine coats, boots, and other civilian clothing. The food was the best and most abundant Leventhal had seen in years: cured meats, bread and jams, pickled vegetables, various cheeses.
After the privations of the ghetto and then the cattle car, it was all very mysterious. They were even, in addition to cigarettes, provided liquor of all things, and though he'd hesitated at first to partake of the stuff, in the end he'd given in, if only to take the edge off his anxiety.
For while he and the others lacked for nothing materially, news of their families was denied them no matter how much they begged. The SS, in fact, weren't telling them much of anything, not even what was so special about the Special Squad. Just about all they did know was they were in a concentration camp, and could only guess what their loved ones were going through. Leventhal's two sisters had seven children between them, and his mother a bad heart. To conceive of them in this place of punishment was beyond bearing. Children in a concentration camp! It defied all that was comprehensible.
Then there was the prisoner from Danzig, an enigma indeed. He'd barged in on their evening meal a couple of nights before, all bluster and brass, though how he got past the guard posted day and night at their door no one knew. Unlike the filthy scarecrow men at the ramp, his stripes were starched and creased, the flesh beneath them ample.
"The names Witek," he'd announced, "and I'm looking for a Noah Zabludowicz. We knew each other from Danzig, though like you he hails from Ciechanow. Can any of you yahoos tell me if he was on this transport?"
Several said they'd seen Noah marched off with the other men on the ramp. "And how'd you get in here, friend? We've been locked down from day one. Nobody in or out."
Witek reached in a pocket and tossed a pack of cigarettes on the table. "Currency of the realm, my man," he said with a hearty laugh. "The SS are easily bribed, especially the rank and file. Six cigarettes a day is all they're rationed."
"So how did you come by so many?"
"The same way you got yours, and those warm clothes, that tasty smorgasbord there. From the transports, where else? Everything comes from the transports. You'll find that out when you start working."
"And what work is that?" This from more than one.
Witek smiled and shook his head, slipped the cigarettes back in his pocket. "I could tell you, but I wouldn't want to spoil the Germans' surprise. No, definitely not. Now, let me get this straight: you sure you saw Noah leaving the ramp on foot and not on one of those trucks?"
Of course they were sure, and two of his brothers with him. The Zabludowicz family was well-known in the ghetto.
"Good. He's probably still alive then. Being the fine physical specimen he is, I thought he might be in here with you fellows. I'll catch up with him sooner or later."
One of them spoke for them all when he asked, "What do you mean, 'still alive?' What does getting or not getting on the trucks have to do with that?"
Witek's face went blank. "You're joking, right?"
Silence, the seconds slow as snails.
"You're not joking," he said at last. "Good grief, what a bunch of blind yahoos you are! The smoke, that smell...where in blazes do you suppose you are? This is Birkenau, boys, not some Tatry ski resort. What--did you think the SS were throwing some kind of giant cookout for everybody?"
"What are you saying?"
"That anyone taken from the ramp on one of those trucks is a goner. Alles kaput. Touts finis. Frizzled away into ashes. Gassed then cremated in open pits, the lot of them."
They didn't believe him. Refused to believe him. Couldn't imagine why he would say something so bizarre. They made noises as if to argue with him about it, but didn't get very far--having learned what he'd come for, he left with a disgusted look and a sarcastic wave goodbye.
They stayed up half the night arguing instead among themselves over what he had to gain from trying to scare them like that. In the end, they could arrive at one conclusion only: this Witek was a scoundrel who'd taken advantage of their greenness to have a little sadistic fun at their expense.
Leventhal shifted uncomfortably in his bunk, debated whether to follow the cigarette he'd just stubbed out with another. Outside, the snow had stopped, the sky through the window threatening to clear. In spite of the condemnation he'd helped heap on their visitor that night, he wasn't so sure anymore. An evil feeling had been mounting in him since, and no matter how much schnapps he drank it wasn't fading.
Could the man have been telling the truth after all? As impossible as this was, it would certainly explain that malodorous smoke everyone was having trouble rationalizing. And the cocky Witek had been right about one thing: whatever was going on, Birkenau was no playground. The electrified fences, the guard towers, the heavily armed SS...it was a concentration camp all right, regardless of the lenience unaccountably shown them.
Tired of wrestling with it all, he decided against the cigarette in favor of a nap. He dreamt it was summer and he was at a lake, swimming. He hadn't been swimming in years but missed it, was good at it, had the body for it: slender but strong, loose-limbed as a seal.
But that wasn't all that had drawn him to it. Even as a child, he'd liked the solitude swimming afforded, just him and the water, alone in a world of water, the way it insulated a person from dry land and its complications. From other people and their demands. In his dream, the lake reflected diamonds in the sun. He was knifing through the water, blue water bright with diamonds. So beautiful, he couldn't remember anything so beautiful...
When loud as a gunshot, the door to the hut slammed. Leventhal snapped bolt upright to see a thirtyish bear of a man, a stranger, plunk two heavy brown bottles on the oak table.
"Okay, lads," he bellowed, "listen to me! The name's Kalniak, and I'm to be your kapo, or foreman. One last schnapps then we're off to do a little work. It's about time you lazy sods were earning your keep."
Without a word, as if awaiting this very order, the men pulled on their coats, and in anticipation of the cold each downed a shot before filing outside. The frosty air seized them by the nose, bit into them. The late-morning sky was a sheet of metal, its overcast sun shedding an aluminum light.
Quickly, they formed a column and headed out, two soldiers on either side of them. They sloshed after their kapo through the muddy snow without speaking. About to learn at last what the Germans had been saving them for, they were too nervous for talk.
Once past the main gate, where they were counted and the number recorded, they took a road toward a growth of trees from which billowed a wall of smoke. It was the same woods they'd seen from the unloading ramp four days ago. A murmur of relief rose from them--they'd been assigned to tend the fires burning the camp's garbage. That wasn't so bad a job. "At least we'll be warm," Leventhal overheard someone say.
The road turned into a snake upon entering the wood, winding this way and that through the trees. After half a mile, it emerged into a clearing occupied by a long, single-story wooden building. An SS lieutenant strode up and called the column to a halt. After conferring with the corporal in charge, he picked five prisoners to accompany him. As these set out for the barracks, Leventhal heard with his spotty German part of his orders to them: "Underwear in one pile, shoes in another, coats and all other garments in a third, verstanden?"
Through the hut's open double-doors, he saw clothes hanging from hooks the length of one wall, others strewn on the floor. But where were the people these belonged to? And why out here, in the woods, had they been made to shed them?
The answer to both questions lay down the road. Another clearing, another building, an arrowed sign nailed to a tree: zum Baden, to the baths. That explained it. Upon entering Birkenau, Leventhal had to undergo a shower and delousing himself. With so much flesh crammed into so small an area, pest-induced epidemics must have posed a constant threat.
The bathhouse, like the undressing barracks, was twice as long as it was wide, but instead of wood was built of brick and roofed with red tiles. It had no windows. A large door made of heavy wooden beams stood agape. An older sergeant leaned next to it, his back against the brick, smoking. At their approach, he stood erect, and with a sweep of his arm invited those in front of the column to have a peek inside.
Leventhal was among these, but with the sun having pierced the clouds and the glare off the snow blinding, the doorway was an opaque black square cut in the brick. It took him a few seconds to adjust to the dark interior--and a few more to convince himself that what he was seeing was real.
The room was filled with dead bodies from the floor to the ceiling, men, women, and children in a snarled, naked mass. Arms and legs were twined together as intricately as woody vines. From just inside the door, the open eyes of a girl seemed to be staring reproachfully into his, as if to say, "Look, look at me...I'm only fourteen."
With a cry , he stumbled backward, his terrified gaze falling on the Scharfuhrer, who couldn't have been enjoying the moment more. He was grinning like a wolf, his eyes darting from man to man, feasting on the shock and bewilderment he found. After he'd got his fill, he waved their kapo over.
"You, Kalniak, listen up. I want this trash out here," he said, pointing to Leventhal and the others, "to take that trash in there around to the back where it belongs. And I want it done fast. Word is we're in for a busy goddam day."
The next thing he knew, Leventhal was standing among corpses, the air in the death room sodden with the stench of excrement and vomit. He didn't know what to do. WHAT WERE THEY SUPPOSED TO DO? Some of the bodies lay helter-skelter on the floor, but most were piled in knotted heaps taller than he. He took a woman by the arms and pulled, but she remained stuck. He'd never touched a dead person before. The skin was wet, still warm...
When he woke, he was sitting with his back to the wall, the burly Kalniak bending over him.
"You've fainted, boy," the kapo said, "but you've got to get up. C'mon, up!" he repeated, tugging Leventhal to his feet. "They'll kill you if you don't."
The man hustled him to the door, made him take some deep breaths. "Good, that's better. Now let's to it," he said, pulling him back inside. "You've got to keep working or..." He drew a finger across his throat. "Don't look at their faces, it makes it a lot easier. It also helps to start at the top of the pile and work your way down. Got it?"
Leventhal nodded, and swallowing hard, was reaching up for a pair of ankles when he saw the showerheads hanging from the ceiling. Having already noticed the concrete floor dark with water, even puddled in places, he paused in mid-reach. Had these people been run through a shower after all? But why do that and then kill them. It didn't gibe.
"Quick, here comes the Scharfuhrer!" Kalniak hissed. "Get to work!"
He grabbed the ankles and yanked the corpse down, its head hitting the floor with a crack. Someone else seized its wrists, and together they lugged it out the door. The Germans were waiting for them with curses and clubs, and off they sprinted in the direction they were driven, their grisly burden bouncing between them.
Leventhal tried not to look at his co-worker or the thing they were carrying, fixating instead on the back of the man running in front of them. His shame at being a participant in murder, even if it was only at gunpoint and after the fact, wasn't something he had any desire to see in another.
A fresh dreadfulness greeted them at the rear of the building. The room from which they'd come was only one of two apparently, for here a different contingent of wretches was dragging corpses out a second door and laying them on their backs. Hundreds stared unseeing into the sun as teams of prisoners moved among them, some cutting the hair off the heads of the females and shoving it into sacks, others using iron bars to pry open mouths. After a quick search, bloody pliers would start ripping out teeth.
Leventhal didn't get it, until told those were gold teeth they were dropping into their tin cans. Harder to watch yet, body cavities were being mined for loot as well, an indecency not even the children were spared.
A narrow metal track bordered the far edge of the yard, atop which stood a line of open trolleys. Still another commando worked this station, filling the lead car with bodies before pushing it into the trees. From behind these gushed the smoke.
He made over twenty trips from the death chamber, running both ways, too tired and stunned to think. But that might have saved him, for to dwell on what one was seeing, what one was doing, was to risk giving up and collapsing in despair into the snow. The path was littered with those who had done just that, their nightmare ended by an SS bullet to the head.
One thought, however, would not be silenced. How in God's name had the Nazi monsters done it, killed so many people, and with no blood? The only blood Leventhal could see on the bodies was the occasional trickle from noses and ears, and that oozing from various scratches and scrapes, as if those so stained had been in a fight. Many also had a peculiar bluish tint to their hands, feet, and faces, though for all he knew, their being naked, this was caused by the cold.
Then with a start, he remembered what their visitor Witek had told them.
Of course, what else could it be? Apart from explaining the absence of lethal wounds, gas--poison gas--was the ideal solution, not only effective and efficient but from where the SS stood, neatly in sync with their ideology. They'd always been loud in vilifying the Jews as parasites, vermin, and how better to get rid of vermin than to fumigate?
He was able to confirm this only after the room had been emptied and he was sent in as part of the crew to "clean it up for the next batch" as the Scharfuhrer put it. This involved hosing the blood and excrement off the plaster walls, digging the fingernails out, spraying down the floor, and sweeping the offal out the door and along the path into a drain. Only then did Leventhal notice the blue pellets scattered at opposite ends of the room.
They lay in two patches up against the left and right walls, above each patch a narrow vent cut into the brick and plaster. It was simple to piece together how the deed had been done. The Germans had poured the pellets through the vents, where they'd reacted with the air to produce the deadly gas. The showerheads were dummy, meant to deceive. As for the wetness he's encountered before, later he would learn the bodies, too, were hosed down, moisture rendering the granules inert along with any remaining gas.
He was to discover many such things, unspeakable things. Why in their death struggles, for instance, the victims ended up in piles: the gas spread at ground level, then slowly rose. In their terror, their mindless panic, the people climbed atop each other to try and escape it, the strong crushing the weak beneath them. Judging from some of the injuries, the fighting had been fierce.
This and other revelations lay in Leventhal's future, not that at the time he imagined he had much of one. What were the odds of the SS allowing him and the others to go on breathing, they who were in on the Nazis' abominable secret? The only thing that could save them was if the Germans continued to need them, and that was going to require a steady supply of corpses. A ghoulish prospect, nor was this just a figure of speech. It hadn't taken them long to realize their survival, like that of the cannibalistic ghoul of myth, was dependent on the ready availability of dead flesh.
Once both chambers were done, a squad of soldiers marched the men into the woods. Some feared this was it, that they were about to be shot, but their guards merely wanted them in their bloody clothing out of sight until they were needed again. One informed them the last of this transport was even now at the undressing barracks, and they'd better rest while they had the chance.
Leventhal lay on his back and studied the trees towering above him. It felt good to lie down, and not just because he was bone-tired. How easy, how inviting it would be to keep lying there after the order came to get back to work. It was no longer dying that frightened him, but living. Survival as what, a craven accessory to the slaughter of his own people? A future doing what--mopping up the the gruesome messes of the blood-crazed SS?
Given what he knew, he was destined to die anyway, if not sooner then later. To do so today would forgo him much, as there could only be more horridness ahead.
That it would be easier, however, didn't make it right. Suicide wasn't an option, and never would be. As tempting as it was, he had an obligation to live, live and bear witness to a crime the Nazis were sure to try and cover up one day.
How he was supposed to accomplish either he had no idea, but of this he was positive, and had been from the moment the dead teen-aged girl's eyes had met his: whatever it took, however long it took, he wasn't about to let these murderers of children get away with it. Somehow, some way, he would tell the world what he'd seen, and the world, whether it wanted to or not, would have to listen.
The sky through the gaps in the treetops was busy with smoke. Leventhal watched it race from east to west like like so many souls departing this earth. Before the war, he'd attended a yeshiva school in Warsaw. He knew his Bible and recalled it now, and the accursed valley of Gehenna, where during the reigns of the evil kings Azah and Masseneh the children of Israel were sacrificed then immolated on the altars of the pagan god Moloch. Now, incredibly, Gehenna burned again, somewhere out there at the end of the German trolley tracks.
He attempted to picture what such an inferno might look like, but mercifully blanking his brain, shut his eyes and tried not to think of anything at all.