I had blood on my hands. And underneath my fingernails. I had it in my soul, I was bleeding there, and it wouldn't stop.
When you watch someone kill a man, it changes you. When you've killed a man, you lose a little of yourself. As he enters the land of shadows, he takes a little of your light with him to guide the way home. When you've killed many men, your soul bleeds and the more you kill, the more blood pours out of you, until you are a pale, washed out thing. Not a man, or even an animal. Animals kill to eat, humans kill for sport.
In our case we kill to eradicate. Vermin. That is what Jews are, we are told. Rats, thieves and a subhuman race. I kept telling myself this; it is what had been injected into my head and they tried to insert it into my heart. Everyone around me believed it. These beliefs were like a virus. Even if you didn't believe it to start with, there was no inoculation to stop the spread of hate. Hate, visceral hate. I scream ‘Fuck!’ and ‘I hate you, you fucking Jew, I hate you!’ with everyone else. I feel it in my marrow for just a second. I know hate and it is the Jew, I tell myself. The Jew is what makes us hate. It is where we can put all of our hate. On him. Around him and his little Jew nose, crooked as it is.
But I didn't believe this, any of this. I didn't hate Jewish people or believe the lies that Hitler told.
I was guarding people from the ghetto's Third Ward. I had been assigned the post the previous week. It was the part of the ghetto where Jews were sent upon arrival from all over Bavaria. It was surrounded by squat brown apartment buildings that were crowded together. Barbed wire surrounded the exterior and I was stationed by the entrance to the ward, where prisoners were processed. This world’s color palette consisted only of the color of dirty ice and snow.
It was cold outside, and the wind was biting. It blew right through me. It hit hard. It made the prisoners in the ghetto freezing cold, and their outlook even more bleak. But the cold turned the other guards into rabid dogs, like dogs being bitten. They barked their orders at the Jewish prisoners. Prisoners who had committed no real crimes.
Gerhard had been beating one elderly man because he hadn't kneeled fast enough when ordered to.
"You kneel, boy, when you are told to. I warned you that you weren't bringing the soldiers’ lunch fast enough, and now you don't even kneel when I offer you mercy?" he said, sneering.
"Sir, I, I am sorry," the man stuttered. “I was moving as fast as I could..."
But Gerhard didn't want to hear more. You could hear the smack of his rifle against the old man’s skull. He fell to the ground. He was bleeding and his eyes were rolled back in his head. He was shaking, like he was having a seizure.
Gerhard told him not to shake.
He did not stop shaking.
I sat there feeling awful, but I'd been here before and I knew what came next. What could I do? I wasn't a man in power, I was just a guard, a guard under Gerhard's command.
Gerhard raised his rifle again to smash the man's skull against the concrete ground covered in snow and ice. The ground was already flecked with the man’s blood, crimson pepper colored. Like a preface of the inevitable conclusion to come.
A woman shouted, "No! You mustn't!"
She threw herself protectively over the man, covering his body with hers, like a mother shielding her child. He was too old to be her child, and she too young to be his mother.
I heard her whisper, "Papa," into the man's ear.
I now understood. I watched Gerhard’s strong arms to see what would come next.
He hadn't heard her, so he temporarily put down his rifle. Not because he had a moment of sympathy, but because he was curious as to why this young woman would risk her life for this old man, and because he liked to watch terror in his victim’s eyes.
Why would she give herself up as an offering? As a sacrifice. Couldn't she know? Didn't she understand? This would doom both of them.
She was brave, I respected her. She hadn't even looked at Gerhard. She knew the consequences. She didn't care, she would not beg. But she wouldn't let him go alone.
Gerhard asked her, "Jude woman, why are you trying to save this old man?" He smirked.
His smirk was never ending. I shuddered.
He turned to me, “Shoot her, shoot her in the head, Hans.”
I looked at him and trembled inside.
I trembled because though I'd killed men, I'd always done it on the battlefield. And never murder, I’d never murdered a woman.
I thought for a moment, just a moment.
I raised my rifle and shot, a straight shot.
I was so close, the blood spattered on my face, and I could taste the metallic vinegar taste of blood. I could smell the stench of burning flesh. I could hear the gasp. I knew what I had done. It had to be done. What else was I supposed to do?
Dead. They were dead, I had killed one of them. I was sick to my stomach, so sick I felt my stomach lurch and I threw up all over the snow. Heaving my fear and disgust out onto the snow. It felt acidic, mixed with a metallic taste as I wiped my mouth with my sleeve.
I walked over to the body, I leaned down to peer into eyes that had faded away into the night of eternal sleep. A film covered them, and they were already turning into glass. Not human.
Gerhard was not human anymore. He was now in the land of shadows and he had already taken a piece of me with him. He didn't take much though, because he was a pig. That man was the animal, not the Jews. He had been even more cruel than the other supervising guards. And that was saying something. You didn't get to supervise guards unless you were inhumane.
And that's the ironic part, they say the Jews are the inhuman ones. But then you had Gerhard, who killed at least one person a day. Usually the weak ones. He killed the old ones, usually men. He liked to pick on those ones, I don't know if he liked to see them suffer even more or perhaps he got pleasure out of seeing them cower. The young ones didn't cower as much, I don't know why. Perhaps their youth made them believe they had more control than they did.
I was staring into his eyes when the fear suddenly hit me. I was terrified. I felt like I was one of the Jews, trapped in a cage. I knew they would euthanize the animal I was.
When they found out, they would treat me even worse than they did the Jews, because I was a traitor. I had abandoned my race, I was lower than the “vermin.”
The fear felt like I was in a fast car, headed towards a tree at eighty kilometers an hour. You had maxed out the car and the road couldn't handle the speed and you veered off. Suddenly you were about to get to the tree. You knew it was your last moment on earth. You were sure that pain was coming and would cover you with the intensity of a bullet to your brain. You felt that feeling in the gut, a pain deep inside that hurts intensely and takes the wind out of you like ten sucker punches to your abdomen.
That was what I was feeling. I stared around me, standing up, holding my arm over my stomach protectively.
I would soon walk in the shadows, shadows that were superior to this place. I just didn't want to drive the car into the tree to get there.
I stood up and looked at the dead winter sky. Snow was falling in my eyes and I had to squint just to see. My eyes watered as the snowflakes melted into tears on my face. I looked up high to see if the prison guards had alerted the others. I wanted to hide, but my body wouldn’t move.
We were alone in the yard, I looked around at the darkened doors of the ghettos, at the "residents’" windows. The Nazis had "their Jews", those that they called pets. Those that for an extra meal, and the guarantee of not being beaten or shot, would betray their own people.
What would come next? I stared at the old man. He had stopped shaking, he was just lying there. But his eyes had stopped rolling. He must be alive I thought, his seizure was over. He lay there, still, and the woman started moving, as if awoken from a trance.
She stared at me, covered in blood, with Gerhard dead like the stuck pig he was, his brain and fragments of his hair showing a deep crevice that broke open his face.
She looked up at me and shouted, "What have you done!? You've killed him, you monster!"
I'd saved her life, I couldn't understand. Had Gerhard ordered me to kill her because she knew Gerhard had been raping Jewish girls at night? Had she been a victim of his? Why would she not want him dead? Did she want him to suffer humiliation that would come with such a revelation?
It must be because she was in shock. I couldn't fathom any other answer.
"Why didn't you just let us die, let us escape from here? A fucking bullet to the head is better than what they'll do to us now, to you too."
She was right. I knew they were watching. They could almost hear whispers.
There were no secrets here, that's why he wanted her dead quickly, he didn't want to risk her shouting something about his love for his hand-picked "vermin." His pets—he would've never recovered from that embarrassment.
I grabbed her suddenly by the hand, but she held onto the old man. I gritted my teeth, annoyed at her ingratitude and forcibly stood her up.
"But Papa," she said. His eyes had now turned to glass, and he was haunting us already. He was in the shadowlands.
I told her frankly, "He is dead, and we must leave and now."
And we did.
She gave a cold, calculated stare into his eyes to affirm that he was gone. Before she left, she said some Jewish blessing, quickly and briefly.
She shocked me as she took my hand saying, “We must hide!”
We could already hear the commotion coming towards us from the left. Shouting about the gunshot.
She calmly reached for my other hand, took my rifle and placed it in her father's hands, and then she led me into the residential area of the ghetto.
It was now night and the cold numbed me. I didn't know what came next anymore. But my heart filled with hope. Maybe my soul could be redeemed, I prayed silently, hoping no one would see my thoughts, as I exhaled them into the German winter air of 1940.
We would be there soon, she said, as we entered the dimly lit alleyways of the ghetto resident buildings. I could hear the guards shouting outside as they saw Gerhard’s lifeless body. But we'd already entered the darkness, and we were hidden from their view.
I was a boy when my mother died. Nine years old was too young to see your mother die.
I remember her as she was, full of life. She was a hardly a woman, having just been a girl before she had me. My dad said I had forced her to grow up. He resented me because she loved me more than him, I realize that now.
My father was a mean drunk, he preferred the solitary company of a bottle to that of his wife and child.
One night, he came home roaring drunk, roaring with anger. No one knew why he was angry, least of all himself. I liked it better when he stayed out all night drinking, but that night he came home.
He stumbled into the house, and fell. He yelled at my mother for not drying the floors well after cleaning.
“But honey, you asked me to clean them and I did dry them with a rag,” she said nervously.
He slurred, “Ua fucking bitch, you’re not worthy of my affection.”
She retorted angrily, “Well then you clean the damn floors.”
She knew she’d made a mistake as soon as she uttered the words, and she clasped her hand to her mouth. She had poured petrol onto his roaring fire. Her pupils widened like a flash of light had gone off in front of her. Like the bulb of a photographer, taking a photo of her terror.
He knocked over the table which was set for dinner and grabbed the pot boiling with potatoes, bubbles percolating to the top with searing heat.
I hate the rest. I hate it like a “good” German hates Jews. I hate it viscerally. In my gut. In my soul.
He was standing over my mother who was trembling, and so frightened that she could not move. He sneered and gave a smirk, a smirk that was never ending. He poured the water on my mother. But boiling as it was it was no longer water, but acid. I’ve heard screams before and since, but the sound that came out of her mouth now was a groaning shout. Guttural. Like an animal. I’ve seen Jews in the ghettos shot and men on the battlefield cry for their mothers but this was different. It was pain, pure pain, never ending pain. She couldn’t cry or beg. Because unlike a gunshot wound that killed you, she was alive. Unlike a gunshot wound that made your pain localized, her pain was everywhere.
I knew what I had to do as her agonized shrieks turned to heaving sobs with no tears, because her eye ducts were burnt. I went to the drawer in my parents’ room. I went to where my father kept his pistol.
I came out of the room and my father laughed at me holding it. I wasn’t shaking with fear. I knew even at nine years old that the man with the gun had nothing to fear from the man he was pointing it at.
I didn’t think twice. It was like blinking your eyes. I squeezed the trigger twice, two bullets into his chest. He fell with a thud to the ground. He moved no more.
My mother was delirious and saying something that I didn’t understand. But in her pain and groaning, I understood that she was begging me. She used all of her remaining energy to point at herself and I knew, I knew she wanted me to shoot her.
When I put the gun down, pointed it to the floor, her wails got more intense than they already were. In her own way, she was begging me.
I started crying, “Oh no Mamma we will get you help. I’ll call a doctor Mamma.”
She wailed louder, begging me inside the wailing.
She was speaking an animal language to me that said, in her wails, “All I feel is pain. A doctor cannot fix this. I want to die. I cannot do it myself, please help me die son. I love you.”
I was beside myself with grief, I was bawling. My crying intermingled with her moan-wailing sounded like an animal before the slaughter. I loved her so much, so very much, to this day.
I trembled as I raised the gun to her head, walking closer to get better aim. I heard my father groan a little as I walked closer. I didn’t want to miss, I wanted it to be quick. I tried to think only of that, helping her leave her pain, and not what I was about to do. I pointed it straight at her head. She stopped moaning.
I know it took everything that she was to stop that, everything that she ever was. She had to use every last piece of her energy to go through the searing pain—to make no sound— to hold it in. She was doing that to let me know—let me know that she loved me and that this is what she wanted.
I put my shaking gun almost to her temple. She shocked me. She touched my hand and cried out for just a moment as she did so. She was saying that she loved me, the only way she knew how.
I loved her too and told her so. I couldn’t hug her because the pain would be unbearable for her.
I pulled the trigger and the bullet killed her instantly.
I was sobbing, but heard my dad begging me for help, slurring the words out. Now I smirked, a smirk that was never ending. I kicked him in the chest and he yelped like the dog he was. I then squeezed the trigger three times into his head. Not out of sympathy, but out of hate and revenge.
The polizei came and cleaned up the mess. I had to explain what had happened. I was from a small town in Bavaria called Passau. It was on the border with Austria, where the Danube and other rivers meet.
My father was well known for his drunken brawls and conduct. They never questioned my reasons for shooting him.
But I had to lie about shooting my mother, I told them that father had shot my mother after boiling her alive. I told them I had picked up the gun when he laid it down after shooting my Mamma.
I felt the Polizeidirektor knew the truth. He stood there looking at me suspiciously, like he knew my secret. He stood with no judgement, he understood my reasons. But he refused to accept or act on his own conclusion. They didn’t want to believe that a nine-year old boy could kill his mother, even if for sympathy and love. The story was already a tragedy as written, why make it worse?
And so I was put in an orphanage and offered for adoption.
I was a handsome boy, or so people told me. I was tow-headed with curly hair and blue eyes. I was tall for my age and I thought I knew many things, many more things than I did in fact know. But I no longer talked about my thoughts on the books I read, and I didn’t interact with the other boys at the boys’ home.
It was a nasty place called Booker Boys’ home. A brown building, ugly, with a flat roof and a gutted out interior. I say it was gutted out because there were no walls, just brick walls. It looked like a bomb shelter. It was one very large room with stained concrete floors. We slept on cots and there were partitions between the bedrooms, restrooms and the open areas. Movable partitions because nothing was static there. A boy came and disappeared the next month. An uncle, or perhaps an aunt or godparents would pick him up. I didn’t have an uncle or aunt to pick me up. My mother was an only child, my father was severely estranged from his family, and I never heard them speak about religion, so no godparents either. It isn’t like I cared anyway, I wasn’t looking to get picked up.
The orphanage was run by kind nuns. We called the head nun, Sister Margaret, mom occasionally.
One night I was hungry and one of the other boys dared me to go into Sister Margaret’s room to find her keys to the food pantry. I figured she would be asleep, and I could easily slip in and out without being noticed.
What I saw disturbed me a great deal at the time, though I understand now. Sister Margaret had her window open and moonlight was gently lighting her room. At first, I didn’t know what was happening. I then heard. I then knew.
Sister Margaret was moaning with pleasure, and there was a man on top of her.
Repulsed, I tried to exit but stubbed my toe on the table and said, “Damn it.”
The man stopped. Sister Margaret and the man covered themselves with the sheets on the small bed.
I had walked in on my father once. He had asked me not to tell, I had kept that promise. I wish I had broken it, I wished I had told, maybe Mamma would have left him then, maybe Mamma would still be alive.
I said through gritted teeth, “I am going to tell.”
I was angry suddenly, angry that she could not keep her vows, just like my father, that she would bring a man into the orphanage secretly, in the night.
I ran out of the room before she could say anything, now yelling down the hall, “I am going to tell, I am going to tell, I am going to tell…”
Sister Claire caught me in the hallway. She stopped me and asked me what was wrong.
“Sister,” I was out of breath from the anger seething out of me. “Sister Margaret is sleeping with a man.”
I don’t know what I expected, maybe shock, or something else. I couldn’t have predicted what came out of her mouth. She leaned down to get to my eye level.
She said simply, “Who made you God to judge?”
I was not angry, my anger had dissipated completely upon her uttering those words. Dissipated because I did not understand.
“But why are you, but what are you…?”
“We all have secrets here, son. Come, follow me.”
I followed her as she led me to her cot. A cot surrounded by thin walls of partitions. Only Sister Margaret had a proper room.
She bent down and extracted something from under her bed. She kept it out of my sight momentarily, cradling it in her arms, and then she unfolded her arms carefully.
It was my diary.
I grabbed for it and yelled, “That’s mine, how could you…?”
She held it to her chest and said, “It didn’t have your name in it and it was left outside after lunch yesterday.”
“Then how do you know it is mine?”
“You just confirmed that it is.”
My heart was pounding, and I was scared suddenly, petrified. I knew where this was going. I wondered when the police would arrive to take me to jail. I started crying. I didn’t want to go to jail.
She put the diary down, the small, brown, ragged thing. A dime-store diary, dog-eared, but loved. It had been mine since before I was here. Since before. I had it long ago, and wrote beautiful and terrible memories in it about my time with Mamma. Mamma with platinum blonde hair and a tender face. And father. He was in there too. So was the night that the most terrible thing had happened, that was in there as well.
“I think you are a very talented writer,” she said, as she leaned down and wiped my tears with the palms of her hands.”
But I was shaking now with fear. Tremors were making me arch my back. She hugged me, and the tremors left, but the tears came back more heavily than before, and I sobbed.
“I don’t want to go to jail, I want to…I want Mamma back…I miss her so much.”
“I know you do Hans, I know. I am so sorry for what happened to you, I want you to know that it wasn’t your fault. God isn’t judging you.”
“He’s not?” I asked.
“No, he is not. Nor am I. And you are not going to jail. The police are not on their way.”
“Have you not read it, do you not know what I have done?”
“Yes, I read it,” she said softly, “I know, but you are no monster like you say you are in your diary.”
She sat on her cot, moved the pillow and patted for me to sit next to her.
“You see Hans, I understand why you did what you did. And so does God.”
I had stopped crying and was listening intently as I wanted to hear this. I was eager to listen to anyone who knew what I had done. I wanted to be judged, be that worthy or not. I didn’t want to hold this secret burden alone any longer.
“Sister Margaret has been a nun since she was sixteen. I know that seems old to you, but it is not very old, not old at all. Her parents are very religious people, like we are. They forced her to become a nun, without her say so. She wanted to obey them, to honor them. She thought that Jesus would want her to do that, and so she became a nun. But she was in love with a boy. The man you saw in the room with her. He is that man.”
I was silent and didn’t know what to say, or how this had to do with my diary.
“You see Hans, we all have secrets, you have yours. I will keep it with me to the grave,” she gave a gentle smile and hugged me.
A sense of gratitude washed over me, like I was healed after a long illness. She had dressed and cleansed my wound. It was still there, but it was scabbed over and healing already. I would never get over my mother’s death, but I could get over the guilt from killing her. I had been racked with guilt.
“But why, Sister?”
“Why what, Hans?”
“Why doesn’t she leave and go be with him, with this man that she loves?”
“Because she believes in her vow. She bends it for a night. She bends it so that she doesn’t have to break it completely. You see, God loves his children and I believe he forgives more than we know. You are not to blame at all for what happened.”
“I love you Sister Claire,” I said tearfully.
“I love you too, Hans.”
She hugged me warmly and right as she did Sister Margaret came in.
“Sister Margaret, I think Hans understands.”
I ran up and hugged Sister Margaret. Sister Margaret and I cried, while we held each other and I said, “I will never tell. I will never tell Sister. Never.”
And I never did.
I felt the most like myself when I was writing. Or perhaps I felt like I could be my best self. I could write about things that happened, and I did. But I could also paint pictures, portraits of life as it should be, as it could be. When Sister Claire had told me I was a good writer it opened a world for me. A world of my imagination, one where Mamma wasn’t dead and where I had a brother and best friend. Where there was laughter and where I was loved and able to love. Outside the walls of the orphanage. I didn’t just read to escape, I now wrote. I carved a way out of the partitions with my pencil. I used my pencil as a scalpel to cut away the bad parts of life, retaining only the best memories to use as fodder for my stories.
All the best memories were with Mamma, without father. Like one time, when Mamma and I went to the park in Passau’s city center, I couldn’t have been more than six. We had gone by bus to the park. At the bus stop there was a pastry shop. Mamma told me she would buy me a delicious treat on our way home before we boarded the bus. My little mind thought of all the different colors and shapes of pastries I’d seen in the shop window. I didn’t know what they all were because I’d never had any. Father was always out of work and so there was no money for such luxuries. I remember that I told her I wanted one of each. She laughed, a golden sound. I loved her and looked to her for protection as we crossed the street. At the park we played tag, hide and go seek, and then sat on a park bench. She read to me there; stories like “Hansel and Gretel.” I listened intently, well, as intently as little boys listen. When we went to the bakery, I chose the strudel. It was wrapped for me in brown paper. I didn’t make it to the bus stop before I had stuffed my mouth full. Sugar sticky on my ruddy cheeks. I was happy. I was happy in a way that only little boys and girls can be. Content in the moment—not feeding the future with worry, nor regretting the past. I just was. I was happy because my little tummy was full of treats, and I was with Mamma, who I loved, and I told her so.
“Mamma, I love you so much.”
“Hans, I love you too. You are the apple of my eye, my sweet boy.”
She kissed my cheek.
She protectively wrapped her arms around me. We rode the bus home, I made sounds like the bus made.
I exaggeratedly hopped up and down as the bus hit potholes. I laughed.
Mamma laughed too, and copied me, hopping up and down as she said, “Vvh Froom, vuphhhh.”
There were also parts I surgically removed, like the tumors they were.
Soon we were home. And I was a fool, father came home this night. Drunk of course, on money we did not have.
He slurred, “Where’s dinner?”
He gave my mother a kiss on the cheek.
That made my little heart sing. I was happy, it was how I wanted them to be. I had not yet given up on father.
I told him what we’d done today, about the park. He laughed at me hopping up and down to show him how I had ridden the bus on the way to the park and back. I told him about reading “Hansel and Gretel” with Mamma.
He then noticed something as I was speaking, the sticky, sugary sweetness that still lingered on my face. Just a little, Mamma had wiped my face.
When he asked, I told him about the wonderfully tasty joy-filled things called pastries and how I had eaten one of them. I wish Mamma and he had one too, I said.
That is when he stood up and with the back of his hand, he slapped my mother out of her chair and onto the floor.
He stood over her sneering and shouted, “You bitch, you know we don’t have the fucking money for this, these children’s treats, these pastries! We can hardly eat!”
I stood there, helpless, silently crying, I knew this was my fault. I shouldn’t have eaten the pastry. She looked over at me, Mamma did, her face already swollen, she looked scared and worried. She wasn’t worried or scared for herself, she was worried and scared for me.
Father came over to sneer at me. He wet his finger with his tongue. And wiped the remaining, crusted sugar from my face.
He licked it off his finger saying, “Mmm, this is good. Why didn’t you save some for Daddy?”
“I, I am sorry, sir. Please forgive me, this is all my fault.”
He leaned down and said, “I wish you’d never been born, you are worthless garbage. Do you know why I am not going to beat you?”
I shook my head, no, I did not know why.
He made his feelings about me even more clear, “Because as much as I hate you and would beat you, I hate her more for having you. I told her to take care of you, to get rid of you before you were born.”
I cried and asked him to please leave Mamma alone. But his rage was back. He told Mamma that he would only hit her once more to be merciful.
She steadied herself for the blow. He backhanded her again and she grit her teeth. She grit because she knew he was not only a fiend, but a liar. They all are, the men who beat women. They are two things, cowards and liars. Always.
And surely enough, he slapped her one more time. This time she passed out and went limp as her head hit the wall. My father was suddenly concerned, he thought she might be dead. He had no desire to go to jail, he still valued his life just a little at the time, a little more than others around him. Once he checked her breathing, he left her there—alive but black and blue on one side of the face.
He left to go get more beer, he said. Beer that cost much more money than my pastry.
I was heaving, crying, snotty nosed. I went over and patted her on the head.
“I love you, Mamma,” I said.