It was all part of the trip. The company decided to take a few travel days in Germany after sealing the business deal in Berlin. I had no interest in it but I knew it would go over well with the boss if I stayed. I would much rather be at home watching the Knicks play with front row tickets I had preordered months ago.
We had plans to tour the area afterward and one of my co-workers suggested we visit one of the concentration camps nearby. Once again, not something on my to-do list but I went along for the ride. It was such a depressing option after another successful deal, it wasn’t exactly the celebration I had in mind.
My boss, Pete, had Jewish relatives and occasionally told stories about them but I never knew it would be so different to be in the setting of these stories. When we reached the gates it all became too real. We walked through the emptiness, an emptiness that once held lives, lives that were lead to death. I felt overwhelmed by my lack of feelings…I wasn’t sure how to feel. I saw the buildings, I walked down the paths, I entered the chambers, and I touched the barbed wires that kept the undesirables in and the desirables out.
The German words on buildings and signs meant nothing to me but pain. Not even my own but someone else’s, millions of somebodies that suffered this anguish I could not fathom. I felt ashamed of who I was, that my ancestors and family stood by and watched or listened while these people were abused, starved and burned for their heritage. I could never imagine how they felt, how some of them made it through.
The tour guide gave us a moment to look around and slowly make our way into the gas chambers. I hesitated before going in, I had a strange feeling I might suffer the same fate as so
many did in this hideous place. When I finally had the ability to enter I stopped. The guide was talking yet I heard nothing. The gray walls around me could have looked similar to any old cellar, but the suffocating feeling of death and pain was almost too much to bare. My eyes began to blur, the gray walls all ran together reminding me of a cloudy, gloomy day. The few people in the room were distant shapes. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath and I thought I might be sick. I felt dizzy, my head light; and I slowly felt my body collapsing.
“Richard, get up, it’s time to go,” a ruffled voice came from below.
When my eyes focused all I could see was long wooden beams above. My back and head ached, I must have fallen hard on the concrete. However, as I gradually sat up, I could immediately see that we were no longer in the chambers. I looked down from the platform I was on to see Pete, standing there gesturing me to get down.
I recognized his gray hair and plump figure, but everything was strange. My mind whirled. This wasn’t happening. My eyes searched the room for an off button, maybe this was a simulation. Some kind of virtual reality. I felt my coat pocket for my wallet and cellphone only to find it had been replaced by ragged striped clothing. Again, panic arose, I lifted the sleeve of the dirty button down shirt to find numbers etched into my arm.
I felt paralyzed. I tried to pinch myself awake but nothing happened. I realized I had lost sight of the only familiar face and leaped off the platform crashing to the cold dirt ground sending a piercing pain through my ankle. Limping, I followed the crowd of slow- moving, zombie-like men. Their faces were blank and tired, but they all seemed to know what to do and where to go. I spotted Peter once again and rushed up to him yelling his name. He glared at me and told me to be quiet before I got us both killed.
Was this some sick game? Or some kind of test for the company? We all filed into a line as men in uniforms came down the rocky pathway.
“What’s going on?” I asked Peter. But he said nothing, his eyes dead ahead not even blinking.
“Peter… Why are we here? Let’s just go back.” I begged.
One of the men, gun in hand, came out of nowhere, jabbing me in the stomach and yelling in a language I could only assume was German. The pain in my stomach and my ankle were only bearable because of the lack of feeling I had in my body, I was in shock. Was this real?
Everyone started marching, although few could barely lift their feet to move forward. Up ahead, two guards stood on either side of the line directing people this way and that. The line moved slow, I limped behind Peter and when the guard waved him right, I followed. When I did this he held his gun out stopping me. He looked me up and down and tilted his head signaling to go left.
I tried to explain to him that I was supposed to be with Peter but he just laughed and said “Be my guest,” in a heavy accent and pushed me to the right. I stumbled, trying to catch up to Peter until I realized where He was headed.
“Peter! Wait, don’t go in there!” I yelled.
Heads turned back to stare as I kept yelling at him. The guards kept pushing them along, looking at each other with confusion. He approached the door, the same one I had walked through what seemed like minutes ago. The gray walls and death-filled emptiness was
all that was in there. When he didn’t respond to me I tried to talk to the man in front of me telling him not to go in. Why weren’t they listening? Didn’t they know what it was??
I went down the line telling everybody to stop but they didn’t listen, it was like they couldn’t hear me. As if they wanted to go there. Another guard came over to me and began dragging me to the left once again. Peter had already disappeared inside the building along with others I tried to warn. As I was forced to take the other path I watched as the black smoke rose and clouded the blue sky above me. I choked back tears, telling myself nothing happened, this wasn’t real.
A man in front of me fell, I tried to help him up pulling his arms but it was all dead weight. Despite his obvious malnutrition and weight loss, he was still too heavy to lift up. When I laid him back down to check for a pulse his cold, dead eyes starred at me. They seemed to be pulled back into his head, his whole face sinking in with them. I instantly dropped his hand terrified. I stumbled away, calling for help. But once again, nothing. I began to yell for one of the guards when a young man grabbed me by the arm and pulled me with him.
“You’re going to get yourself killed, and probably the rest of us too. What do you think you’re doing?!” he asked.
“I’m not supposed to be here. We were on a business trip, and my boss, he just….” I couldn’t finish my sentence. Of course, he was fine, this was a simple misunderstanding.
“None of us are supposed to be here. But we are, and you better learn how things work if you want to survive. And if your friend went right, he isn’t coming back, you could almost call him lucky,” he said.
I didn’t know what to do. I looked around me, all I could see were brown buildings and barbed wire. I thought maybe I could just go talk to whoever was in charge here, explain my situation, that I was an American and had nothing to do with this. I could walk out and go back to the U.S, back to my apartment where everything was neat and organized, I’d be to work by the next morning, ready to set up another business deal. I closed my eyes imagining it, then I felt my stomach rumble.
I followed the crowd until we got to an area where rocks were piled in heaps along a building. The others began picking them up and loading them into a wheelbarrow for another to take. Now, understanding the guards, I played along to stay out of trouble. That way I could hopefully get some information on how to reach someone.
The rocks were dreadfully heavy, their sharp black edges scraped and cut my fingers. My back began to cramp and tense from all the up and down movements. Finally, after what seemed like hours and hours I saw the men heading toward the building I had come from. Maybe if I went back there, that’ show I could get out of here. It was getting dark, and I realized I hadn’t eaten or drank anything for hours. I asked around to see where I could get food but only got puzzled looks and annoyed stares. I found the man I had talked to earlier and asked him where a café or restaurant was nearby.
“You don’t get it do you?” he asked while climbing up to one of the top wooden beds. One of hundreds in the small space. “You can’t go back; this is where you’ll be until you die or they lose the war. Nobody gets out, and even if you did, there’s nothing out there but death for us, we’re Jews,”
Jews? I wasn’t Jewish, and the war? What war? World War II? That’s ridiculous that was over 75 years ago. Once again my mind searched for an explanation, something to help make sense of it all. It was impossible for me to be here, I could find no logical explanation, it went against all the facts. For days I tried to figure it out, I asked Jack questions whenever the guards weren’t around but he only had dated facts, the things I had learned years ago.
Days past and nothing changed. Day and even nights we carried heavy rocks or pieces of machinery. I watched myself begin to blend in with the others. All I wanted was to return home. Struck by numbness and refusal to admit any of this was real, I didn’t feel like I was withering away but my body showed the opposite. I rarely ate, giving my food to the others; if this was all fake I didn’t actually need the food. All I had to do was make it until someone came to get me out.
Jack was just about the only one who would listen to me and inform me of how all this happened. I tried to tell him about New York and cars, and skyscrapers. He always enjoyed my stories but chuckled at them, telling me they were the only thing that could make him laugh due to the absurdity of them.
He told me his story. He had a mother who died on her way to the camp on the train. She got ill and her lifeless body lay near him the rest of the two-day ride. His older brother, he assumed was still alive, hadn’t been seen since they were split up for different jobs; he guessed that was two years ago. And his younger sister, Agatha, had been taken away as well. His father had been a well-known business man and had paid his way out of Germany leaving the rest of them behind. This sickened me, yet I wondered if I had the chance, would I have done the same?
Recently though, he began to talk about death, how peaceful and relieving it would be. He began to doubt that any of his siblings were still alive and saw no point in continuing on. I realized that I had more to give than I thought. All those history classes I had taken reminded me of the immense knowledge I held that could offer these people, especially Jack, some hope. To him, when I explained how the war ends in 1945 –the Soviet Union and western allies coming in and forcing Germany to surrender– it all sounded absurd. I gave him all the facts, and yet he thought I was crazy. He could be so close to freedom and he was about to give up. I began to tell him to do it for me, to stay alive because I needed him, and I did.
I began to let go of the idea of returning, to going back to the life I once knew. I wondered if anyone missed me, or if I really even existed at all. Without Jack, I wouldn’t have stayed sane, or as sane as one can be in this situation. He taught me how to survive, how to avoid harsh beatings and a bullet to the head. He taught me how to forget about the pangs of hunger and how to sleep through them at night.
However, one night, after an unusually long day of lifting and carrying I felt my body losing control. I tried to hold on, for Jack, for myself, maybe if I just made it through all this would end. Jack tried to help me stand but it only worked for a second before I fell to the ground. My face surrounded by dirt, I could hear the footsteps of the guard. I lifted my head only to see jack attempting to help me once again. I tried to tell him to stop, that it wasn’t worth it, but he didn’t give up on me. The officer whacked him in the head with his flashlight leaving his forehead gushing blood. He called over to one of his other guards in a foreign language and in a matter of minutes they had Jack on his knees their guns pointed at his head.
My mind went back to his story, how he had a family to live for. For his brother and younger sister, they still had the possibility to be a family again. I had nothing like that to live for. I took the last bit of strength I had to lift my body off the cold hard earth and sway it in front of his just in time to let the bullet leave the gun and meet my chest.
I could faintly hear the sound of Jack’s voice as I felt my body being dragged along the dirt. I could only hope that I had saved his life, as he had done for me. My eyes saw the distant outline of smoke against the black sky above me and I knew where I was being taken. My eyes gave in and my body let go.
“Richard??” a muffled voice came from beside me. Water splashed my face and I gasped for air. Breathing heavily, I frantically looked around and noticed Peter standing beside me as I lay on a bench under the bright blue sky. Why was he so calm? I looked behind him to see the door to the gray walls. I grabbed Peter’s hand asking if he was real and how long I had been gone. When he gave me a confused look, he only handed me water and told me to get up, that I had been passed out for a few minutes from dehydration. A few minutes?
I was so confused yet utterly amazed. My hand reached for my chest, no blood, no bullet. I looked around the camp, I saw the place where I and others starved, worked and died. Where Jack had been when I left him. It was no longer empty but full of images of something unbelievably real.
An old man stood on the other side of me, his face was wrinkled and showed signs of years of abuse and pain. His hair gray and thin. Beneath some strands was a scar across his forehead. He handed me an icepack for my head holding out the other hand to shake my own.
“Thank you…” I said waiting for him to inform me of who he was.
“Jackson,” he said.