s t o r y t h e o d o r e o d r a c h
Through the windows of our compartment the landscape passed by quickly; the train was coming from Augsburg and approached Nuremberg at high speed. Opposite me sat a young man with a tired Semitic face, slumping deep into his seat, snoring intermittently to the purring sound of the engine. Up on the ledge, directly above his head, lay an overstuffed suitcase, and I assumed he was some sort of salesman. He began to toss and turn, then slowly opening his eyes, asked in a loose German jargon how far we were from Nuremberg.
“About another half hour,” I replied.
“Are you perhaps Polish?” he asked drowsily.
“No, I’m from Czechoslovakia.”
A warm smile appeared on his face. “Ah, Czechoslovakia – Prague, Prague. Not in all my life have I seen as lovely a city as your Prague.”
At that moment the train came to a stop, numerous passengers boarded, then we went on again.
“I’m Benny Blumenkranz.” He extended his hand, and sinking back into his seat, threw one leg over the other.
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Igichek Dufek.”
As it turned out my fellow traveler was a Jew from Lodz and talked to me in Polish, while I spoke Czech.
“I really can’t believe this war is finally over. What a nightmare it’s been.”
“It’s been hell, that’s for sure,” I agreed. “And the Jews got the worst end of it.”
“We’ve suffered all right. If you don’t mind, Mr. Dufek, we Jews have a southern temperament, we like to talk, a bit too much sometimes, but we like to talk. Do you mind if I tell you a most incredible story?”
“No. By all means, go ahead.”
“I want to tell you about what happened to me when I was placed in a concentration camp outside of Bogatynia. This was in the summer of ‘44 and each day, under the guard of SS men, we prisoners were sent off to labor at a nearby train station. There were carts filled with all sorts of parcels, mostly from soldiers posted in Poland to their families in the Reich. We were made to unload all the undamaged parcels and pack them into separate carts that were to be transported out. Those Germans, what they didn’t send! Fabrics, bacon, butter. As I worked, a certain parcel caught my attention. It was large, carelessly wrapped in brown paper and tied with jute. And it was severely torn, I could even see chunks of meat inside. Can you imagine what the smell of meat means to a starving man? I became delirious. I could think of nothing else. It invaded my nostrils, every pore of my body. I ripped the parcel open, snatched out a slab of bacon and slipped it into the bosom of my coat. It didn’t even occur to me that an SS man could be watching. I quickly composed myself and resumed working.
“‘Well, Benny,’ a voice suddenly erupted from behind. ‘What are we going to do with you now?’ An SS man stepped toward me twirling a rubber whip.
“A chill rushed up my spine.
“‘You’re a stupid Jew,’ he went on. ‘Who goes and hides bacon like that? Why, a blind fool can see there’s something stuffed inside your coat. Aren’t you scared of eating pig meat?’
“‘No, Herr. Still before the war I ate bacon, in fact, all kinds of pork.’
“The SS man looked/peeked at his watch and burst into a loud and derisive laugh. ‘I want you to take that slab of bacon,’ he said, ‘and stash it in your barracks. Make it back here in two minutes. Ein, zwei ... Oh, too bad, Benny, you’re half a second late.’ And with his whip he flogged me across the spine. ‘You know, it’s really a shame to waste such fine rubber on a good-for-nothing like you.’ He spat between his feet and walked away.
“The SS man’s name was Kurt Wilde, one of the most brutal and feared men. He always appeared during inspection time clenching his fists. And that’s what I found most baffling. There I was, caught stealing bacon, and all he did was strike me across the back. I couldn’t figure it out. Perhaps he wanted to toy with me, then in the dead of night creep up to my barracks, grab me by the hair and shove me into a burning oven. I was prepared to die for that slab of bacon!
“Nightfall came, we were ordered back to our barracks and nothing happened. I climbed into my cot and fell asleep. The next day again. Nothing. Finally, on the third day Wilde called me before him.
“‘Did you eat up that bacon, Benny?’
“‘Yes, Herr, I did,’ I replied.
“‘And you didn’t think of sharing some with me?’
“‘I didn’t know . . .’
“This time he whipped me mercilessly.
“‘This is for your thievery! This is for your greed! And this is for your egotism! Now march, back to your barracks!’
“He was a tyrant, but at the same time there was something peculiar about him, something I couldn’t quite figure out. One day he called all the prisoners together and commanded we all sit in the cross-legged fashion. He turned to one of the men and snapped:
“‘What do you think of me?’
“‘I think you’re a very fine man, Herr.’
“‘Liar! You think I’m a swine. No lies here or I’ll chop you up into little pieces!’ He then flung himself around, and looking straight into my eyes, said scoffinglyscoffing, ‘Benny, did you ever love a woman?’
“‘And did you propose to her?’
‘Benny, do you see that pole over there?’
“‘Yes, Herr. I see it.’
“‘You idiot, you! That’s not a pole. Don’t you recognize her? That’s your sweetheart. Go and make love to her!’
“‘Oh, Lilly, I love you.’
“‘Not like that!’ Wilde walloped me over the head. ‘Be more theatrical, add romance to your voice!’
“‘I love you, Lilly.’ I embraced the pole. At that point all I wanted to do was turn around and kill him.
“Wilde rose to his feet, and searching among the prisoners, his eyes finally rested on Shmool, a short, fat hunchback with small beady eyes and thick lips who had been a shopkeeper in Lodz.
“‘Shmool, you can do better!’
“Shmool threw himself on the pole, then fell to his knees.
“‘Dobo, I love you. Come into my arms. Let’s get married. I have a beautiful house with large windows. Together we can sit and look out into the yard at the chickens, ducks, geese, hens, even pigeons. You see, my love, I’m in the poultry business.’
“‘Enough! Enough!’ Wilde clapped his hands. ‘March, back to your barracks!’
“That was Wilde. He had an authoritative walk, his boots were always immaculately waxed and his uniform pressed. True, he was despicable and loathsome, yet still, there was something that set him apart from the others. For some reason, every time he caught sight of a fence or a tree stump, he would climb to the top; first he would balance on one foot, then on the other, he would walk with arms outstretched dipping here and there, making fantastic spins. Quite the sight! Later we discovered he had been a tightrope walker with the Berlin circus. He would walk from rooftop to rooftop without a net to catch him; passers-by would gather below and watch in fascination. This was his greatest passion.
“When our work at the train station ended, rumor had it we would either be transported to Dachau or, worse yet, butchered alive and thrown into some pit in the woods outside of Bogatynia.
“Finally the time came. There were thirteen of us, all Jews: Shmool and I were from Lodz, two from Ukraine, some from Warsaw, and the rest from Byelorussia. One day Wilde called us together and warned:
“‘If any of you try to escape, you’ll get it right between the eyes. Understand?’
“That same day, under the guard of four SS men we were packed into a boxcar, eastbound. The hunchback Shmool was convinced of our imminent death.
“‘Benny, they’ll probably do away with you first because you’re so mouthy. But I’ve got hope, all my life I’ve depended on it. Er . . . perhaps you would like for me to pass a little something on to your family. I will tell your mother – over there, in the woods, beyond Bogatynia is your son’s grave.’
“‘You’re a fool, Shmool. If the bullets don’t get you the first time, the bayonets will.’
“‘Why should they kill me? I never harmed anyone.’ Then looking intently at me, his eyes clouding, ‘Benny, why do you talk like that, anyway? Tell me some jokes instead.’
“After four long hours of traveling we were shoved out of the boxcar and assembled in single file a few meters from the tracks. We were deep in the woods, an abandoned little farmhouse peered out from behind a stand of tall conifers, and a powerful range of mountains obstructed the blue-gray sky. There was an ominous calm and it seemed before long we would be digging our own graves. That day we were handed axes and told to chop down trees and with the logs build parapets for German soldiers who were to be stationed on the eastern Front. Surprisingly, our food ration increased and with it our dispositions, even Shmool managed to slip in the occasional anecdote. We worked nonstop. Wilde watched over us with the butt end of his rifle pressed against his shoulder. Next to him stood Ziggy, his ruthless sidekick.
“They locked us up in a cold, damp chicken coop. In the mornings we were fed morsels of dried food, then chased off to work. The nights were undisturbed and we were coming to believe that perhaps our lives would be spared. Then one night came the sinister clicking of heels. Later, muffled voices. Somebody was fumbling with the latch of the chicken coop. We sat motionless, our backs pinned to the wall. We listened. The door banged open. There stood Wilde and Ziggy, their faces wild, almost inhuman.
“‘Get up!’ they charged.
“Under gunpoint we stumbled into the darkness toward a huge pit we had dug the day before. I could hear Shmool moaning under his breath. I poked him in the ribs to keep quiet.
“We stood at attention. A second more, I thought, and our bullet-riddled bodies will go tumbling into the pit, one after the other. We held our breath. Then at that very moment the unexpected happened. Our mouths dropped in disbelief. Wilde had jumped Ziggy from behind and was choking him with his bare hands. He called out to me:
“‘Benny, quick, take off your pants!’
Realizing what was going on, I ripped off a piece of fabric from my pant leg, formed it into a ball and shoved it down Ziggy’s throat so that he couldn’t scream. After a few minutes Ziggy was all tied up.
“‘Benny, quick, help me throw him into the ditch!’
After we threw him over the edge, Wilde shouted out to us, ‘Jews, get over there by that tree! Schnell!’
“We obeyed immediately and to our astonishment, under a pile of conifer twigs, lay rifles and SS uniforms. Wilde gave us five minutes to change and before long we had rifles flung over our shoulders and an ample supply of ammunition in our belts. Wilde yelled, ‘Forward, march!’ We followed after him.
“‘Halt!’yelled Wilde when we were deep in the woods. ‘From this moment on I am your commander. I’ll shoot anyone who disobeys my orders. If any of you are fool enough, then kill me now, but that won’t save you. The Gestapo will track you down in no time. Do you want me as your commander?’
“‘We want you,’ we shouted in unison.
“‘This is my plan: we’ll go traveling about, and we’ll do our best to keep out of harm’s way.’ Then with a serious look, ‘You know, Jews, yesterday I received orders from headquarters to have you all executed. But I thought to myself, to destroy a bunch of fine fellows like yourselves, that would truly be a shame.’
“‘Excuse me, Herr, we don’t appreciate your sarcastic tone.’ The hunchback boldly stepped forward.
“‘Shmool, come here!’ Wilde was enraged.
“The color drained from the hunchback’s face and he refused to budge. A few of us pushed him forward – we saw freedom in our futures and we weren’t about to let Shmool ruin our chances.
“‘I’ll shoot you!’ Wilde pointed the spout of his rifle into Shmool’s chest. ‘I don’t need the likes of you in my brigade.’
“‘Herr, I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.’ He waved his arms in the air and tossed his head about. ‘It must be something in these woods.’
“Shmool was a nuisance and I was the first to suggest, ‘Herr Offizier, why don’t we tie him up for a while. Maybe that will keep him quiet.’
“‘I’m not an Offizier any more, Benny. Right now I’m merely a commander, or if you prefer, a commander of Jews.’
“On this day we stripped Shmool of his clothes, tied him to a tree and watched his naked body be swarmed by mosquitoes and black flies. He swelled up like a pumpkin.
“With no particular destination in mind we pushed eastward. As far as provisions went we had little trouble; we would slip into remote villages on the edge of the woods and stock up. Outside of Krakow, when asked by peasants what sort of brigade we were, I was chosen to act as spokesman.
“‘We are the Jewish sector of the national Polish army. We’re fighting for an independent Poland and are now on our way to the eastern Front to fight the Germans and the Russians.’ When we reached Rzeszov we inadvertently landed in a Polish military camp. There was a minor shoot-out and within minutes we were surrounded. On the end of a twig, up went our capitulation flag. We were disarmed and cross-examined. After short deliberation Polish headquarters decided to release us, but the general, an elderly man with gray hair and bushy white brows, informed us that he would not return our weapons or Wilde. We had a brief conference, then announced:
“‘If you don’t return our commander and our weapons, you might as well kill us all. He’s our leader and without him we’re as good as dead.’
“‘Lieutenant,’ suddenly Shmool burst in, for some reason addressing the old man as lieutenant, ‘Wilde, though he’s a German, somehow he’s not a bad sort and protects us, well, like Moses the people of Israel. He’s helping us because he couldn’t bear all the suffering, he had enough. What can you possibly gain by his death?’
“Then Aaron Goldberg, a good-natured, burly tailor from Bialystock threw in, speaking distinct Polish, ‘We both feel the same way about the Germans, but as you can see for yourself, Wilde is no enemy. He once was an SS man, that’s true, but his real passion has always been with the circus.’ Our pleading finally touched the old man’s heart and he conceded. Before departing he raised his finger and cautioned, ‘Make sure your Wilde doesn’t lead you to Buchenwald!’
“We made our way toward the woods and before long we spotted Ukrainian villages. They were up in smoke. The peasants were terrified of strangers, especially those who spoke Polish. Within our brigade there was no predominant language. Shmool, Goldberg, a few others and I spoke Polish, but to Wilde only in German, and our comrades from Ukraine spoke mostly Ukrainian. Creeping along the edge of the woods, we slipped into a small village and to our surprise we were momentarily surrounded by a band of armed sentinels. We jumped into an empty hut and took refuge.
“‘Surrender!’ charged a voice from outside. ‘You’re surrounded!’
“‘Hey, we’re one of you!’ called out Jordan Bergman in distinct Ukrainian. ‘I’m from Sheptivka myself. Born and raised there. Put forward your commander and we’ll get to the bottom of this misunderstanding.’
“‘Come out, one of you!’ An order came pouring into the shack.
“We shoved Bergman forward, unarmed. He was instantly grabbed and a gun was put to his head.
“‘Give yourselves up, Red paratroopers!’ another voice roared from behind the storage barn.
“The sentinels had mistaken us for Bolsheviks so Wilde yelled out:
“‘Meine Lieben, wir sind unabgehˆrige Kempfer!’
“His impeccable Berlin accent caught them off guard and a confused silence followed. We started to make demands for the return of Bergman, trying at the same time to explain ourselves, but they refused to listen. Then we requested that one of them come forward to negotiate. From behind the storage barn two sentinels emerged, carefully approaching the hut, with Bergman between them. We told them our story, that we were Jews simply traveling about and that our commander happened to be German. Ironically, they didn’t believe a word we said and took Wilde to be the only Jew among us.
“‘What’s your mission?’
“‘We’re not on a mission. We only want to protect our own lives. The war will end and we’ll go off somewhere, probably to Palestine.’
“‘To Palestine? And are you going to take your Nazi friend along with you?’
“‘If he wants to come, we will take him. But I have a feeling he won’t want to come.’
“Throughout the village word had spread that Jewish soldiers were blockaded in a hut. Outside the door peasants began to haggle. Later old women arrived with big, loose bundles, hallooing through the windows:
“‘Hey, we’ve got something to trade with you! Perhaps you have some nice fabric. Maybe a little footwear?’
“But when they peered inside their eyes popped open in disbelief. One, two, seven, thirteen SS uniforms! They froze.
“‘My dear women,’ called out Bergman, waving his arms in the air, ‘you’ve got it all wrong. You see, we’re not really Germans, we’re only wearing German uniforms. This man’ – he pointed to Wilde – ‘has been kind enough to escort us out of a prison camp and now we’re simply traveling about. We’re friendly, I assure you.’
“This speech made little impact on the villagers. Then Isaak Zimmerman, a native of Vilnius, took the stand. Though his tone was somewhat upbraiding, he knew how to capture the female heart.
“‘We were prisoners. The Germans beat us with their rubber whips, starved us, baked us in their ovens. The tortures we’ve endured!’
“He spoke with a deep fervency, and happily we noticed that not only on the faces of the women, but on the sentinels as well, gleamed a sense of compassion. Then one old woman cried out: ‘That’s because you Jews crucified Christ!’
“‘Baba, those who tortured us were Godless. And believe you me, they don’t just torture the Jews, but Ukrainians too! A Ukrainian friend of mine, Andriy Kopach, they tortured to death.’
“Another old woman, leaning against the wall of the hut, clasped her chest.
“Zimmerman went on. ‘He was my very best friend, a fine human being. He shared his last morsel of bread with me. How he grieved for his wife Natalka and his little girl Annochka. The Reds somewhere by the Buch River killed them. He even…’
“But before he had a chance to finish, an ear-splitting voice resounded through the village, ‘Eek! Take cover!’ Gunshots erupted from the outskirts. Then came the explosion of cannons. A young man came running as fast as he could, shouting but one word: ‘Poles!’
“By way of the meadow, a band of Polish soldiers had crept up to the village’s edge and had already set fire to several farmsteads. The shooting unsettled the commanding sentinel and he turned to us and said, ‘We can’t trust you fellows just yet. Give up your weapons. After we chase out the Poles, then we’ll deal with you.’
“We translated this for Wilde but he was not impressed. He did not like to be told what to do. Ignoring the commander’s orders, he waved his hand in the air and shouted out to us:
“‘Never mind men we’ll fight anyway. We’ll fight the Poles. If the Poles seize the village, they probably won’t harm us. At worst they will strip us of our weapons and clothes. If we help the Ukrainians they won’t detain us any longer. Actually, it’s all the same to us who we fight. Get ready to attack!’
“‘Er, Commander,’ the hunchback came forward speaking in a low tone, ‘if you permit, my conscience does not allow for this. I am an honest citizen of Poland and I refuse to fight the Poles. I was born in Lodz, I grew up there, I had my shop there. I cannot and will not fight the Poles.’
“‘Benny, tie him up!’ Wilde lost patience. ‘We have no time for this now.’
“Instead of tying Shmool up we locked him in an old wooden storage shed. Wilde divided us up into two sections: he commanded the first, I took the second.
“The Poles were already crawling through the tall yellow grass toward the outlying houses. We watched them in silence from dugouts and from behind buildings. When they were within range, we opened fire and smothered them with bullets. Then, unexpectedly, from behind a clump of bushes jumped another band of Poles and charged to the rescue. Wilde and his group, stationed on the edge of the village, began to fire and the Poles, caught off guard, fell into a panic and started to retreat. Most were killed and those about to be taken captive committed suicide. It was a great victory and the Ukrainian sentinels procured a fine collection of weapons. After the battle we became named the Hebrew Heroes and were even proclaimed honorary members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Peasants showered us with gifts, young girls tossed flowers at our feet, and boys hooted and whistled.
“Still under the command of Wilde, we pushed farther east. Because the surrounding villages knew of our victory over the Poles, we no longer had to plunder for food; the peasants greeted us with great hospitality.
“One day, as we advanced toward a large hamlet in the heart of Galycia, we heard the ripping sound of machine guns. The village was being ransacked. We decided to go to the rescue and jump the enemy from behind. Wilde recognized the weapons as German.
“‘Well, my chosen ones, it’s the Goldene-Fasanen. We’ll fight. Benny, you go to the right field; Shmool, you go to the left. Disperse!’
“‘Commander Wilde, I can’t shoot from the left. I can’t aim properly. Put me behind Benny, when he gets killed, then I’ll begin shooting.’
“When Shmool came up against my heels, I kicked him as far away from me as I could. He moaned and groaned for the longest time.
“On all fours we crawled toward a mound of brushwood where we got a clear view of German soldiers hiding in a coppice, shooting at the village. The peasants were firing back, but their bullets were missing the enemy. Carefully checking all positions, Wilde raised his left hand and made a sign of attack: ‘Ready! Aim! Fire!’ And our bullets came riddling out. Pandemonium broke loose among the Germans and, flat on their bellies, they began to flee. Wilde motioned our right flank to the edge of the brushwood, cutting short their getaway. But then a set of explosives went off. A reinforcement of German soldiers started to hurl grenades from a dugout by the main road. A fierce battle followed and all but one German managed to escape. He was a balding soldier from some Landwirdschaft, his face thin and colorless. He mumbled something under his breath, and then made unintelligible references about Ukrainian partisans. Wilde addressed him in German.
“‘We’re not Ukrainian, not to worry. I’m German myself and these men here are Jews. Shmool, are you Jewish?’
“‘I don’t appreciate such a harsh tone, Commander.’ The hunchback threw back his head. He was feeling brave. The battle was over and he had little left to fear.
“‘Benny, maybe I should shoot him once and for all.’
“‘He’s asking for it, no doubt about it,’ I answered. ‘But hasn’t this war killed off enough of us already?’
“A few moments later, when a messenger appeared from the village with a note of appreciation, the sound of a gunshot exploded from behind. I swung around and there lay the captive German with his face down in the mud, blood gushing from his skull. Next to him stood Shmool, gritting his teeth.
“‘That’s what the bastard deserved. For all my suffering. I swore I’d kill ten Germans to pay for it.’
“Wilde turned purple with rage. ‘Shmool, what the hell did you do? You shot him from behind!’
“‘This is just the beginning!’ Shmool spat between his feet, then aimed his rifle at Wilde, his finger on the trigger. Wilde came at him.
“‘Don’t come any closer. One more step and I’ll kill you.’
“But Wilde continued head-on. Shmool rapidly began to lose courage and within seconds dropped the rifle to the ground. Wilde raised his fist and punched him savagely in the jaw, then pounded him to the ground. Shmool screwed up his face. Wilde ruthlessly sank the tips of his boots into his rib cage, then kicked him in the head. Shmool squirmed on the ground and Wilde showed no sign of mercy.
“‘Commander, he isn’t conscious any more.’ Bergman grabbed Wilde by the arm and pulled him back. ‘Hasn’t there been enough bloodshed?’
“Wilde turned on us. ‘Cowards! All of you! Get out of here!’
“But we didn’t budge; we stood and waited until Wilde calmed down. We knew that without him we were as good as dead and he without us. A strange kind of fate tied us together.
“The half-conscious Shmool was left behind in some remote village, and we traveled farther east. The Front was now somewhere near Lvov and extended northward in a crooked line. Germans, Ukrainian partisans, Poles and Russians were now swarming the entire area.
“‘We’re going to have to plan our next move,’ said Wilde one day. ‘Have you got any suggestions, Benny?’
“‘I think we should make contact with the Reds. The Ukrainians are an unreliable bunch, after all.’
“After short deliberation, we all agreed to head beyond the Front. Ukrainian villages were now avoided and if one were up in smoke we turned the other way. Carefully we wove northward through dense forests and along the edge of open fields. Somewhere near Vilnius, we landed in a Bolshevik ambush. A fierce fire opened up. We dove to the ground and waved our capitulation flag. Under gunpoint, the Russians marched us down a narrow path that led to main headquarters. And this was how we landed on the eastern Front. At first they did not believe our story, but after hearing of our adventures in detail, they decided we were telling the truth. Even Wilde passed as a Jew from Germany. The Bolsheviks insisted we enlist in the Red Army and we readily agreed. Better to be Red than dead! When orders came to have us transferred to Czechoslovakia, we rejoiced. We were given a crash course in sabotage, then flown over Bohemia where we parachuted near the town of Tabor. Quickly we made contact with a garrison of Red partisans and they gave us orders to assassinate some minor forest-guard by the name of Koch, stationed by the railway tracks. And so we became Bolsheviks on the German trail!
“‘Well, my knights of Solomon,’ began Wilde, ‘shall we murder this Koch or not?’
“‘If we must, we must,’ said Aaron.
“‘Let’s forget it.’ Wilde waved his hand in the air. ‘Why should we care about any commands from the Bolsheviks? We’re independent soldiers, after all. No one orders us around.’
“Instead of killing Koch, we decided to head west because the Front was already retreating. Upon reaching Pilsen, we traded our uniforms and weapons for food and civilian clothing, then headed for Bavaria. The war was over.”
As the train approached Nuremberg, the passengers began to take down their luggage. When it entered a large, dilapidated station, Blumenkranz pulled his overstuffed suitcase down off the rack above his head.
“Are you selling food?” I finally asked.
“No, I’m taking food, to Wilde. He’s in prison right now. At his trial we plan to tell our story.”
“The Jews about whom I’ve been telling you. Only we don’t know where the hunchback is. Well, Mr. Dufek, I must be on my way. It was a pleasure meeting you. Your Prague is truly a lovely city.”
Blumenkranz walked briskly down the platform, then disappeared beyond the exit gates.