THIRTEEN - Günter
As we drive towards Terezín, I am beyond frustrated. I have put myself in a peculiar spot and am now responsible for this thoroughly annoying woman. I am still baffled at my uncharacteristic behaviour in regards to Klara.
She tried to assassinate Fuchs. I understand that most Czechs hate the man; I am not particularly fond of him, myself. However, this is war. He is, to some extent, justified in his strong-arm tactics when dealing with the conquered populace. They are, in turn, also justified in demonstrating their opposition to being conquered. After all, no one can ever claim that war is just.
I am not fooling anyone, least of all myself, when I say that I rescued the young woman because I am against the killing of the weak. I am a soldier and I have killed hundreds in battle. Can I say with certainty that if a woman had tried to kill me, I would have let her go? No, he is well within his rights to deal with her and her co-conspirators as he sees fit.
And yet still, I cannot imagine letting her die. I look at her profile; in repose, she looks perfectly innocent and vulnerable. I look away from her. It will simply not do to let her burrow her way under my skin.
She sleeps through the drive to Terezín. I do not find sleep, but manage to calm myself enough to feel rested when we arrive at the fortress town. I know that the Jews from Prague have been relocated here. But beyond that, I am not aware of much. The army has no involvement in the politics of the regime, and the treatment of citizens, Jewish or not, is politics.
I know the Big Fortress houses the Jews. The Small Fortress has always been primarily a prison. We are stopped at the gate of the walled town. As the guard approaches our car, I roll the window down and order him, “Wake Hauptsturmfuehrer Seidl. Tell him to see me in his office, NOW.” The man looks like he wants to question me, but he’d better not. I am in no mood to put up with insubordination.
Luckily for him, he salutes me and gives Joachim the directions to the commander’s office. I note that Klara has woken up upon hearing my voice. She looks at me with eyes wide open, a dozen questions floating in dark green. I sigh. I know I should probably tell her something, explain what I am planning to do. But I cannot tell her that I have no idea what to do with her! I take the easy way out and snap, “Stay in the car until I come back. Joachim will be here. Do not try something foolish.”
As expected, she bristles at the order. It seems to amuse me; to anger her. She really is an enigma. One moment she is obedient and the next she is a fire-cracker. I don’t think, most times, even she knows how she is going to react. I raise my brows at her, daring her to say something and she does not disappoint.
“If I do something, it won’t be foolish,” she retorts, like the hellcat she sometimes is.
I lean in towards her, crowding her and whisper, “Try it.”
She leans back to maintain the distance between us, the sweet, submissive, Klara.
I get out of the car and instruct Joachim, “Make sure the fräulein stays put,” and head into the commander’s office. As expected, he is here, waiting for me. He may not like it, but I am far above him in rank and stature and so he will have to follow my command. These men in the SS think they are better than everyone. In reality, they are nothing but bullies.
I do not waste time on pleasantries and get straight to the point, “I will need quarters for myself and my driver for the next three days. I will also meet with your senior men and the gendarme commander,” I quickly look at my watch to confirm the time and continue, “at 9 a.m.” That gives me a few hours of rest before I start my work here.
“Herr Generalmajor,” he protests, “I was not told of your visit.”
“Do you have something to hide, Seidl?” I ask.
He backs down immediately and says, “No, no, of course not Generalmajor. I was merely saying that if I had known the purpose for your visit, I would have been better prepared to help you.”
“I do not require your help, Seidl. I only require you to follow my commands. Now, about my quarters.”
“Yes, certainly. I will direct your driver on how to get there. It will be ready for you,” he assures me.
I nod and leave his office. I instruct Joachim to go get the directions from the commander; I do not wish for him to come too close to the car and see Klara. My ‘quarter’ is actually a small house and not far from the commander’s office. Joachim opens the door for me and I nearly push Klara inside, closing the door behind me.
The house is not bad. I take in the sitting room which leads into what I assume is the kitchen on one side and the bedroom on the other side. The bathroom must be through the small passage in between the kitchen and bedroom. I walk into the only bedroom and see that there is only one bed. It is large enough, but I doubt that the large size will make Klara like the situation any better.
I look back to see that she has also had a quick look around and noticed the sleeping arrangements, or the inadequacy of them. I see the confidence drain from her face as she looks at me with a mixture of doubt and fear. I need to put her mind at ease. I look at the couch in the sitting room and nearly groan out loud. It is barely big enough to seat two people.
Chivalry dictates that I offer the lady the bed even though she is half my size. I nod to the bed and tell her, “The bed is yours.”
She relaxes visibly, seems to find the confidence she had misplaced a few minutes ago and shakes her head. “I am a lot shorter than you. I will be comfortable enough on the couch. You can have the bed.”
This girl is tiring. I open my mouth protest when she suddenly turns around and flops down on the couch. She proceeds to lie down on it, with one of the armrests as her pillow and looks at me, eyebrows raised. Well, she has demonstrated her point very satisfactorily. So, I bid her good night and start getting ready for bed myself.
The next day, I wake up to see Klara already up and the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafting through the small space. I join her and see that she looks refreshed too, although she is still in the same dress that I procured from the concierge in Prague. She has a mug of coffee set aside for me.
I pick up the mug that she has been drinking from, “Thank you.”
Her eyes snap up to mine, “What are you doing Herr von Hallerstein?” She asks.
I see, still no first name! I let it go and ask her, “Do you have any more of the poison left?”
She looks shocked for a moment before the penny drops. She seems offended and says, “Of course not!”
“Would you have been tempted to use it if you had it?” I ask.
She takes some time before she murmurs, “No...”
It feels like she wants to say something more, but doesn’t. I already have my answer though. So I continue drinking her coffee and wait for her to take the mug she’d set out for me.
She picks it up, “The kitchen has coffee, but nothing else,” she explains.
“Joachim will bring us breakfast. I have set out some toiletries in the bathroom. You are welcome to use what you need when you take a shower,” I inform her.
As expected, Joachim brings my breakfast from the officers’ mess. He is a good man, he brings enough for me and Klara too. We have breakfast in a companionable silence; punctured only by me telling Klara that I will be out for most of the morning.
Seidl and his three senior officers are in the office when I reach there at 9 a.m. He introduces them as Hans Müller, Ernst Weber and the Czech gendarme commander Janeček.
“I need to see the details and manifests of the transports that came in from Prague in the last month, as well as the schedule for the next thirty days,” I tell them, observing each of their reactions keenly. I see no reaction from two of them, but Seidl is clearly upset with my demand. As is the Czech gendarme, Janeček.
“I do not understand Generalmajor,” Seidl launches into his protest, but I cut him off.
“You do not need to, Seidl. You simply need to provide me with the information I have asked for. If you cannot do that, I am happy for one of these men to assist me,” I say, pointing to the other two officers.
Seidl is visibly fuming, but nods to one of the two men, indicating for him bring me the files that I have asked for.
“I will be back here in an hour for the files,” I declare and stalk out of the office. I cannot stand the slimy Seidl. I am planning to walk around the town, to have a look at how the reality matches the propaganda that I have heard. A comfortable place for Jews to be safe from the dangers of war or some such drivel.
As I walk around the town, I am shocked. The people are all gaunt and dressed in rags. I try to talk to some, but they scurry away from me like I am a snake.
I see one of the SS men and ask him how many people are currently housed here and I am taken aback by the answer. Twenty-nine thousand souls in this village which could not have housed more than five or six thousand originally. I walk on ahead to the living quarters of the Jews. The quarters look like large dormitories and I assume that the living conditions are mostly communal.
Although I do not see the point of segregating the Jews from the rest of the population, I have not given this issue much thought. I have been in battle, almost non-stop, for the last three years. I have seen the conditions that my soldiers are living and fighting under and so if the civilian population is facing hardships also, it does not really bother me. This is a time of hardship for everyone.
I step into one of the barracks and stop short. I cannot comprehend what I am seeing before me. There are three tiered wooden planks with threadbare pieces of cloth on them. The wooden planks are so close together, that at first, I cannot imagine what purpose they serve. Then, like a jigsaw puzzle, the scene before me reforms to make a picture that is horrific even for a seasoned soldier like me who has seen soldiers rough it out in extreme conditions on the battlefield.
The wooden planks are berths for sleeping. They are so close together that a person cannot even sit up straight on the plank. The pieces of cloth that are falling apart are supposed to be blankets. Suddenly, the conversation about the Final Solution of the Jewish Problem that I half-heartedly shared with Fuchs back at the party in Prague, falls into perspective. Suddenly, I am presented with a staggering question: what sort of a leader have my men and I been fighting for?
I return back to the office and see that the files are all ready for me.
“I will be in my quarters studying the files. I will need to talk to you two,” I say pointing to the two SS officers, Müller and Weber. “Come to my quarters at 5 pm,” I order and turn around to leave when the something on the radio hooks my attention.
Well-known industrialist Joseph Barsch was found guilty of conspiring against the Reich by attempting to assassinate Obergruppenführer Fuchs and was executed this morning. Obergruppenführer Fuchs had to be taken to the Bulkova hospital today due to severe vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. It is believed that he may be suffering from a case of severe food poisoning after last night’s party at Prague Castle. Minister Frank has declared a reward of ten million crowns for information on the whereabouts of the Barsch family, Helga, Ester and Klara.