That was the first time he saw him. Though frail, there was a powerful energy emanating from him. He didn’t know what it was, but Fritz was drawn to him, and through the blazing, amber eyes of this pathetic, worthless, Jewish man, he saw something more. Despite having seen and even spoken at this man on many occasions, this was the first time he had truly seen him.
“Fritz, hurry up! What are you doing?”
“Sorry Otto, I’m coming.”
As the two friends- who were more like brothers in arms, born of the Nazi state they held dear- went about their day, Fritz’s thoughts kept drawing back to that prisoner. “Who is he?” he thought. He’d never taken much notice of anybody in the camps before. Even if he had known anyone from that time when their kind were allowed to roam free, he wouldn’t recognise them. Maybe because of how broken and beaten down they were. Maybe because he simply saw them as nothing more than figures.
A number. That’s all they were.
That evening, after all the other soldiers had gone to settle down for the night, Fritz stayed back. He knew Otto would question him when he returned, but he needed to know. It’s not as though it were the oddest thing to stay behind with the prisoners; however, it was usually to terrorise them. Whilst he walked towards the sleeping prisoners’ bunk, he came across one of the Jewish guards.
“Kapo!” Fritz called.
The man hurried over so as not to ruin the position he had established with the officers. Fritz looked down upon his kind. He hated the Jews, but the idea of a traitor, someone going against their own people, was an act he detested even more. “What do you know of that prisoner?” he pointed.
“The one with the ‘eyes’? Uhhh…think he came from Auschwitz, lucky fella.”
“Hmm. What else do you know? What of before the transition?”
“I don’t know; he doesn’t speak much that one.”
“Alright, go, we’re done here.”
Tentatively, Fritz approached the man. “Prisoner.” Though many were awake, they knew who the officer was calling and they daren’t look up to make eye contact. The consequences of such an action could be the light feather which caused the entire stack to collapse and destroy. Playing dead is better than being dead.
“Yes sir,” the prisoner answered hesitantly.
“Come with me.”
The prisoner sprung up, though his body draped in fear and sore from bruises seemed to fight to keep him down. As he walked towards the German officer, there were mutters and murmurs. Having been in the camp for so long, the prisoners had found a way to speak so quietly that they could hear each other but the guards couldn’t, almost like an encrypted message only they could understand. One phrase in particular stuck with him as he left with the officer, “Those who leave this way, never return.”
“What is your name?” The prisoner looked up in mild, guarded surprise. None of the officers had ever asked his name before. Even the ‘nice’ ones would just give the prisoners derogatory nicknames. They weren’t even worth the numbers they were branded with.
Uncertainly he answered, “Josek, sir.”
“Where are you coming from?” Fritz saw the puzzled look on Josek’s face and began to grow irritated. He persisted, “Before the transition, where did you stay?”
Fritz chuckled as he sparked his cigarette. “I’m not going to hurt you, elaborate. Tell me about yourself.” Josek knew better than to speak too much. A little small talk could take a drastic turn. However, he did as the soldier said and answered his questions. He told Fritz about his mother and father having to leave one another behind after the first war, which was why he had moved to Poland. Josek and his brother went with his father whilst his sister went with their mother.
“I wonder if I hadn’t gone with my father, where I’d be right now.” Josek looked up at Fritz who was staring at him intently and a sudden cloud of terror hovered over him. He doubted whether he’d shared too much.
“I thought you said you were Polish?” Fritz asked interrogatingly. “You are lying to me? I’m nice to you and you want to play games with me?!” He drew for his baton.
“No, no,” he raised his hands to protect himself, “You misunderstood. I said I lived in Poland. I was born in Germany; I grew up in Berlin. Please?!” he begged. Fritz lowered his weapon and noticed the scar on Josek’s arm as his sleeve had rolled down.
“Where did you get that scar?” he questioned in an inquisitive change of tone.
“When I was a boy, there was a fire. The other burns went away but this scar never left. I don’t remember much. Just that there was this man. An old man. I helped him. That’s all I remember.”
“Who was he? What did he look like?”
“I don’t know; he looked like an old man. It was a long time ago. It wasn’t even my house; it was my father’s boss’; we had to help out there sometimes.”
A look of realisation took to Fritz’s face as it suddenly dawned upon him. “It’s you.” Josek was perplexed but was too fearful to question Fritz, so he remained silent. “That house…” Fritz caught a lump in his throat. A Nazi soldier never cries. Even when everything he knew was tested. “That house…You saved my grandfather. I saw you. You were young but so…brave and I always had admiration for you. He wasn’t even your family, not even one of your own. But you put your life on the line anyway.”
The two young men began to converse as though they weren’t from two completely different worlds. Much was revealed by one another about their journey to this moment and Fritz began to feel something he’d never experienced before: sympathy for a Jew.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Fritz remarked.
“I’m a Jew. This is where I belong…according to you anyway,” he looked away.
Guilt clung to Fritz like flames; he’d never felt such shame before. He had spent most of his life terrorising Jews, when the man he pretty much owed his life to was exactly that. He knew he had to do something. He grabbed Josek’s hands and pleaded, “Let me help you.”
That night Fritz went home where he found Otto ready to greet him. “Where have you been?” Otto interrogated. Fritz usually shared everything with him, but on this occasion he knew he couldn’t.
“Had to take care of one of those animals,” he said with an uncomfortable smirk on his face whilst Otto cackled. The two departed and Fritz stayed up all night. He knew that in a couple of days’ time they were due to exterminate a large number of the prisoners. He needed to act fast.
The next day, Fritz joined his fellow officers in walking the prisoners back to their bunk; he signalled discreetly at Josek to gather at the back of the group so they could converse without drawing any attention to themselves. “I have a plan. Meet outside your bunk about an hour after dark. I’m getting you out of here. And Josek…DON’T TELL ANYONE.”
“Fritz…what are you doing? Where are you taking the Jew?” Fritz turned around to see Otto. His spine went cold.
“I…I…I’m taking him to the showers; they said they needed some extra prisoners.” Josek stood silently beside Fritz, and went to grab for his hand like a child to his mother when they fear danger.
“Fritz, he’s going for your baton. Dirty Jew. Strike him, STRIKE HIM!” Fritz didn’t move. The only thing he did know was that he couldn’t tell Otto the truth.
“FRITZ! What is wrong with you? Hit him!” He saw that Fritz didn’t plan on harming the Jew and began to register what was happening. But it couldn’t be; Fritz wouldn’t do that. He’d seen him pledge allegiance to the Fuhrer, with the pride of a true born German; the only explanation there could be was that he was losing his mind. “Fine, I’ll do it,” Otto grabbed his weapon and raised it above his head so there would be a mighty force upon impact of the Jew’s brittle skin. Fritz grabbed his arm to stop him. “What are you doing?” Otto pushed him away with frustration.
“There is no point. Why waste your energy when all those bruises and pain are just going to turn to ashes?” Otto was hesitant but knew Fritz had a point.
“You’re right, I suppose…” Otto responded and Fritz continued on walking the “…seeings as he’s going to die anyway, why bother with the hassle of taking him all the way to the showers? Just shoot him now.”
At this moment, Fritz knew Otto had worked it out and seen the change in his heart. And that just as they had been taught, there would be no mercy. One is only a brother for as long as he supports his family.
He glanced at Josek and realised: its either him, or me.
“Jew. Stand there. Put your hands behind your head,” Fritz commanded, the words sounding hollow in his own ears. As he stared at Josek, he saw the fire in his eyes go dull and looked away in shame. “Turn around.” He breathed in heavily and took a deep sigh with his hand on the trigger.
He couldn’t get the echo of the bang out of his head; it seemed to go on forever.
“Fritz!” Otto patted him on the back and chortled proudly. “Wasn’t that hard was it?”