Zygmunt Frankel

SHORT STORIES


THE LAST GUARD AT AUSCHWITZ

The elderly man with a pale-blue concentration camp number on his arm ordered another cup of coffee, without a cake this time, and lit a cigarette. Tel-Aviv was right behind him, but he didn't have to look at it. In front of him, the sea stretched blue and smooth like glass, with only little wavelets breaking on the sand.
Two young girls passed in front of his table and one of them gave him a brief interested look. He pretended not to notice; the sunglasses made it easy. This was why sunglasses were worn by bodyguards of important people; you couldn't tell whom they were watching. The girl who looked at him had a small butterfly tattooed on her bare shoulder. Tattoo is here to stay, he thought; hers, delicate, expensive, and voluntary; his, enforced and crude, without any artistic pretensions so long as the numbers were legible. It had been good news at arrival at the camp; the Germans did not tattoo the ones due for immediate gassing.
He knew that a small but steady percentage of young girls was interested in older men if they were not repulsive, and he wasn't. He had kept his figure and his hair. The figure was the reason he did not order another piece of cake with his second cup of coffee. His hair, once blond, was mostly grey now, but this did not show as strongly as in a darker-haired man. His eyes were blue and his face tanned, and he had the whole day to himself if he wanted to; he ran a small travel agency which could be left in the hands of his capable secretary. A widower, he had married young, and now had two grown up children and four grandchildren, the eldest already in high school.
The young Israelis, he thought with pleasure, were getting more and more beautiful from year to year. Taller than their parents, brought up on good food and sunshine, every tenth girl or so the equal of any film star Holywood could come up with, half the boys - he meant it as compliment, in the "good sense" of the word - like what the SS would have liked all its officers to look like. But the time they started pushing thirty, most of the young men already had a belly; too much food and beer, and not enough exercise. He estimated that they had enough fat on them to last them between six months and one year in a camp. In those days, there was a saying that by the time the fat man grows thin, the thin one will die. He himself had been a bit plump, at twelve, when the Germans came. Four years of hunger took care of that, but when they finally caught him, he still looked fit enough to be selected for work and not extermination. He only spent three weeks in the camp. The front was getting close, and, to erase evidence, the Germans set them to undigging bodies from old mass graves and burning them. Had they had the time to complete the project, they would have killed the disposal teams as well, but either they started too late or the Russians were too fast or both, and they only created additional witnesses to what had been done. The elderly man, sixteen at the time, and a few of his fellow prisoners did not even wait for the arrival of the Russians. One day, when they were working on a mass grave in the woods, a couple of Russian planes strafed them. The SS and the prisoners took cover, some even diving into the grave on top of the rotting bodies. For the first time, the prisoners felt some solidarity with their guards because of the shared danger. Instead of simply dropping down where they stood, the young man and a few others scattered into the bushes to take better cover, and then, as the planes kept diving, crawled and ran farther into the forest and hid there. The Germans were too busy and too few to organize a proper search in the forest, and a few days later the Russians came.
The Germans - and the Russians, as he learned later - did not only shoot and, in the German case, gas people. There was also a slower but less messy way, of starving them to death. You could even calculate, if you understood calories, how long a prisoner or a Ukrainian peasant would last. In the case of the six million Ukrainians under Stalin, a few years before the war, they not only died quietly but also buried their own dead. He would be interested to see some statistics on cannibalism in those places and times.

A youngish man with a belly and thinning hair sat down at his table, shook hands, and asked how things were. When the waitress came, he ordered steak, chips and beer, and the older man, another coffee. The young man also had a travel agency; his specialised in group excursions to Auschwitz and the Warsaw ghetto for high school students, often with himself as guide. Born in Israel to Polish parents who had spent the war in Russia, he was a member of the association of children of Holocaust survivors and liked to discuss the Holocaust with people with concentration camp numbers on their arms. He asked the older man whether his grandson's school was planning a trip to Auschwitz this year.
"Yes, I think they are."
"Has your grandson already been to Auschwitz?"
"No," said the old man, and then added "not yet." He smiled inwardly again. He liked the old saying about the difference between a wise man and a clever one: the clever one knew how to get out of situations into which a wise one never got himself. He applied it to conversations as well.
"You will, of course, correct this at the first opportunity?"
"I've been thinking about it. Marvelous sea today, isn't it?"
"There's no question that every youngster should visit Auschwitz if only his family can afford it, which, of course, is no problem in your grandson's case. It's not all that expensive, either. My own agency... " he took a brochure out of his briefcase.
"I was thinking about the right age. With the religious Jews, a child begins to study at the age of three, but he is not considered fit for the Kabbala before he's forty and has raised and supported a family. Perhaps those visits to Auschwitz also call for some minimum age and maturity. Taking them to the camp in the morning and to a disco in the evening - I believe it's the casino with the older tourists..."
"We are not taking them to a disco! We encourage contact with the young local population, to discuss the past and build mutual understanding so that it never happens again, and if they choose to discuss it in a disco..."
"Have you ever tried discussing anything in a disco? You can't hear yourself, leave alone anyone else."
The younger man gave him a puzzled look. He could not imagine him in a disco any more than he could his own parents. In fact, the older man had only been to a disco a couple of times, with his young secretary, at the start of their secret affair. The younger man, he knew, had made a pass at the secretary and failed.
"You yourself, of course, have revisited your own concentration camp. How many times?"
"Just once, before coming to Israel. Without the corpses, the SS, and the danger, it was not the same. What's more, they've put a "No Smoking" sign at the entrance to the crematorium."
"Well, a tourist shouldn't smoke in such a place, should he?"
"No, of course not."
"And then, right after Auschwitz, we take them to the Warsaw ghetto, to teach them about heroic resistance and to dispel any accusation that the Jews had gone to their death like cattle to slaughter."
"Wouldn't it be simpler to tell them about the Polish officers at Katyn?"
There was a brief silence.
"Please remind me?"
"In September 1939, during the partition of Poland, the Russians took 15,000 Polish officers prisoner of war, and in the spring of 1940 they shot them. A couple of years later, the advancing Germans discovered the mass graves in the Katyn forest near Sverdlovsk, and of course advertised it all over the world."
"Yes, I do remember something of the sort. But what has it got to do with the Holocaust?"
"Most of those officers were not Jewish, so they did not have any of this Jewish mentality blamed for going to slaughter like cattle. The Polish soldier is known as one of the best, and most of them were young combat officers, taken to their executions without their families, and yet the Russians shot all of them without any difficulty, perhaps just tying their hands behind their backs first. The fact is that, in a dictatorship, armed executioners can exterminate any number of unarmed people, whether they are of a type that goes to slaughter like cattle or not."
"That's interesting. Were there any Jews among them?"
"There must have been some. One of them was the chief rabbi of the Polish army."
"But they were not shot because they were Jews, were they?"
"No, they were shot because of what they were before the war, even if it was quite legal there and then."
"That's different then, isn't it?"
"Of course. It's only the bodies in the mass graves that were similar."
"Do you think I should mention it on those excursions?"
"You'd better not. The kids have been taught that we Jews have the monopoly on the Holocaust and that no one else suffered anything of the sort, never mind the Gypsies - actually half a million of them, in the same gas chambers and crematories - political enemies, homosexuals, and the feeble- minded under the Germans and millions more under Stalin, not to go back to the Armenians in Turkey earlier this century. If you try undermining the monopoly, they might even boycott your agency."
"Yes, I suppose you're right."

The steak, beer, and coffee arrived. The younger man undid the top button of his slacks.
"Should go easy on this stuff," he said. "My doctor's been warning me about blood pressure and cholesterol. Will have to go on a diet soon. But, all the same, how could one make those trips even more realistic and educational?"
The older man hesitated. Pulling the leg of someone without a sense of humour was like kicking a man who was down. But the temptation was too strong.
"Now let me see," he said. "Those gas chambers stand empty, don't they?"
"Of course."
"Have you ever been to Madame Tussaud's in London?"
"Yes, of course."
"How about a pile of naked wax bodies on the floor of the gas chamber, with a whiff of something that smells like Zyklon, without the lethal component of course. And some more bodies, charred ones, in the crematorium, perhaps with those imitation flames done with electric lights and rotating reflectors?"
"Er... no; it sounds like a good idea, but the authorities will never agree; too conservative and bureaucratic. But do you know what? You could sell small spray cans of imitation Zyklon, there or elsewhere."
"And perhaps also packets of imitation soap made of human fat."
"Yes, it might be good business. Educational, too."

The old man sucked in his breath at another idea, pretending that his coffee was too hot. He has just remembered some organisation which ran sessions where, for a lot of money, people were shouted at and insulted. It was supposed to make them tough, or open up their consciousness, or something of the sort.

"You know what," he said to the younger man, "you could set up a really roaring business, with the right theory behind it, killing two birds with a single stone."
"What two birds?"
"Slimming and Holocaust studies. Think of a small replica of a concentration camp, with barbed wire and watch-towers, the customers wearing striped pyjamas and the supervisors SS uniforms. The food would be like in the camps, watery soup and a few crumbs of bread. There would be roll-calls morning and night, and they would also have to work, carrying stones or maybe digging mass graves - a small bulldozer could fill that up again over the weekend - and sleep on bare boards, very good for back problems. You could garantee a loss of at least three kilos in a single week, and they would also learn a lot about concentration camps."
"You couldn't set up such a thing in this country."
"Talk to psychologists first. Sooner or later, you're bound to find one who will think it's a good idea, and then get him or her back you up with a scientific theory with a lot of Latin words."
"When did you first think of it?"
"Just now."
"I've never heard anything like it before. Are you thinking of going into it yourself? I mean there must be some kind of copyright or something. Or would you be interested in a partnership?"
"No, I am too old for new projects; I'll limp along with my present travel agency. You're welcome to it."
There was a brief silence.
"Look, if you really mean it, can I rely on you not to tell anyone else?"
"I'll be silent like a grave. It's a promise."

The younger man asked for the bill, insisted on paying for the other's coffee and cake as well, left a generous tip, shook hands, and walked away deep in thought.

"He's going to try it. I believe the poor blithering idiot is going to try it. And the joke will be on me if it makes him a millionaire."
"But it could also be risky," he thought on. "One of the customers, with a problem with telling fantasy from fact, might turn on him in his SS uniform, with a shovel or a stone, and bump him off. It could then make a movie, "The Last Guard at Auschwitz" or something of the sort.

# # #

1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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