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Drama Historical Fiction Suspense

This story contains sensitive content

“My first day was at the reception center. I was only sixteen but I wasn’t the youngest,” he said in that deep raspy voice that sounded like two stones rubbing together, his accent so thick it was almost a parody.

“Uh huh,” Penny replied, perusing instagram videos on her phone. 

She hated being here. Spending her Sunday afternoon at an assisted living center was far from her ideal circumstance.

Several rationalities came to mind. First of all, it smelled. The scents were hard to discern. Rather Penny labeled them ‘old people’ smells, a combination of the perfume of Depends, arthritic ointment, and the ever present feces. Second, her great grandfather was oblivious of her presence. He would still be talking if the room were empty. And lastly, her attendance was a prerequisite to the glee club trip she had been campaigning to attend. 

Penny had been given the obligatory ‘I’ll think about it’ from her mother, almost immediately followed by the suggestion that they visit her great grandfather. Apparently he had been a bit of a handful recently and they had called her mother in for a meeting to mitigate the infractions, which Penny could only assume were severe. 

It wouldn’t be the first time. Karl Fischer was prone to colorful outbursts, mostly attributed to a feud with the kitchen staff over their definition of ‘authentic foods’, but he had also sometimes been known to be ‘grabby’ with the female persuasion, though never with those his own age. Rather the younger nurses and CNA’s were the center of his focus. 

Penny, however, never felt apprehension being around her great grandpa. He had never once shown an inclination of violence nor impropriety when they were together in the same room. Matter of fact, when he did notice her he called her ‘Flower’, or rather he called her Blume, but her mother said that meant flower in his native language.

“There were other boys there too, much younger than me, but they were Hebrews.”

“Huh?” Penny stopped scrolling through her phone, looking up sharply from her spot at the edge of the bed.

Her great grandfather was sitting on the sofa chair, leaning on the armrest closest to the window, gazing out at the rain coming down outside. It was spring in Vermont and it was a familiar sight. 

“What did you say, Grandpa?” Penny prompted.

The word pulled him out of his reverie for a moment. He turned to look at her, slightly confused. 

“What did I say?” he asked. 

“The Hebrews,” she replied. “You said something about the Hebrews.”

“Ah yes,” he said, returning his gaze to the window. “They would come in long lines, so many I would lose count. Many were children, some just a few years younger than me. They would come in naked. Some we would give clothes to and they would go to the barracks. Others would go straight to the gas.”

He stopped and looked up at the ceiling as if addressing the heavens.

“Who decided such things? I don’t know. It seemed random, but perhaps I am wrong.”

Reaching out a hand, he traced a rain drop with a finger as it ran down the opposite side of the glass. 

“Then I saw her…”

Karl trailed off, watching the rain.

Penny looked over her shoulder at the door. It was open, always open, a standard precaution in the dementia wing. She felt suddenly paranoid, as if she were about to engage in unscrupulous activity.

Penny got up from the edge of the bed and grabbed the desk chair that was in the corner of the room. She moved it to her grandfather’s side and sat down, putting a hand on his forearm.

“Who did you see?” she nudged him.

“The girl…I knew that girl.”

He turned and smiled at Penny for a brief moment, “Klein Blume.”

But the smile didn’t last. The wrinkles of his face constricted for a moment as if in pain, and when they smoothed out she could see that he had disappeared back into the past again, as he was want to do when left to his own devices. 

“She was from my neighborhood, the butcher’s daughter, Jacob’s daughter. We used to joke he could only make boys. Seven boys, all with big appetites. And then the girl came, like a gift, a moment of pity from God.”

“How old was she?” Penny asked softly. 

“Hm?” he intoned, his thoughts slightly interrupted. 

Penny shook her head, “Never mind, Grandpa. Tell me about her.” 

“I had not seen her for two years, not since I left for school and then the war,” he continued. “But I could tell it was her right away. She looked just like Jacob, but so frail, so afraid. She was covering herself with her arms, poor thing, but she didn’t see me. She didn’t see me because she didn’t look up. None of them did. They’d learned not to. Making eye contact was dangerous. Standing out was dangerous.”

His hand went to his chest, and for a moment Penny worried that he might be suffering some ailment, god forbid a stroke or heart attack, but she realized that he was simply overcome with emotion. The usually stoic face cracked, and when it did, she could see the grief welling up deep inside him. 

“What was I supposed to do? She was just a child when I knew her. She still was. Eleven, twelve years old? Too young to work but too old to be sent right to the gas with the other little children. Where was her mother, her father? Maybe they went straight to the gas, but then why was she spared?”

He shaded his eyes from Penny, bowing his head.

“She still does not look up, does not see me. I can go ask for a piss. When I come back she will be gone, one way or the other.”

Penny wasn’t ignorant. She was in high school, and history was one of the few subjects for which she actually stayed awake. Looking down at her phone, she briefly thought of recording the conversation, but for what reason she couldn’t say. After a brief internal struggle, she decided against it, mostly because Karl often talked about things he had only seen or heard on tv, rather than lived. Dementia was a cruel mistress, full of half truths and false memories, and Penny wasn’t certain of the validity of this reminiscence. 

It takes a minute for Karl to recover, and when he does, its the window and the rain that draws back his gaze. 

“I walked to the front of the line where the guards give out the uniforms. It is a horrible smell. They do not clean their clothes with soap, only steam. You can still smell the sweat and the fear from the ones who wore them before.”

He took a deep breath as if to test the air.

“I meant to ask for a piss but when the guard looked up at me I realized I knew him too. Such a strange day, my first day.”

Karl shook his head in wonderment.

“His name was Anton. When he saw me he grinned, just for a moment. It was not the place for smiling. I had not seen him since the depot where we trained. He asked me what I needed but instead of a piss I said a small uniform. He looked at me strangely but gave me the black and white stripes anyways.”

Penny wanted to ask what he meant by the stripes but was anxious that if she interrupted him again he might snap out of it, and she desperately needed to hear this telling. 

“When I walked back to the girl I grabbed her arm, but not too gentle. I knew I couldn’t be gentle. If I was gentle then they would know something was wrong. I pulled her out of the line and shoved the clothes against her chest and told her to get dressed. She almost looked up at me but checked herself a second later. Maybe she recognized my voice.”

Karl noticed as Penny adjusted in the chair. He turned to look at her and immediately looked away. She wondered if he was seeing the little girl or the guard.

“When she had the uniform on, I pulled her past the line and shoved her towards the front, making sure she was in the line that went to the barracks, not the gas.

I felt better then, and the rest of the day was easier. It was not as difficult as I thought it would be. I was only processing, not taking them to the gas, and they acted more like cattle than people. They never spoke, never complained. There were no tears or pleas for mercy. It was easier to forget they were human.”

Penny felt a shudder go through her at the practical way he justified it. How many years, she wondered, had he held this rationalization aloft like a shield to protect such fragility? She thought about calling her mother, but if she did that it was possible the girl’s story would never be told.

“Tell me,” she said instead, insistent. 

He didn’t seem to need much encouragement. Maybe he needed to tell it more than she needed to hear it. 

“At the end of the day I went to the mess hall for supper. Anton was there. He came over and sat down across from me. The first thing he did was ask about the Hebrew girl. I told him she had been given the wrong sized uniform. He said I should have just sent her to the gas. I shrugged as if it made no difference to me one way or the other. I told him that she was strong, she could work, and that answer seemed to satisfy Anton, but I had to be careful.”

I didn’t see her for a while. The took me out of processing and gave me fence duty. I preferred it. The smell was much better and I didn’t have to look at their defeated faces all day. Seeing that…I don’t know. I think it made me hate them, hate them for being weak, for being afraid. Maybe I just hated myself.”

He nodded as if he already knew this to be true.

“I saw her again a few weeks later. She was carrying a bucket of water from one barracks to another. I was by the fence and stopped to watch her. I was surprised at how skinny she had become. She was just a wisp now, skin stretched over bones. I wanted to cry. 

She was at least thirty paces away, but for some reason she actually looked up. When she saw me she stopped. I could see the recognition on her face. I gave her a nod and pointed with my rifle towards the barracks, but then she did a stupid thing. She smiled and gave a little wave with her hand by her side before she ran off.”

He sighed heavily, shaking his head.

“Why did she do that? I thought maybe it was okay, maybe no one saw her, but I was wrong…so wrong.”

Karl looked down at his hands, seeming to notice all the wrinkles for the first time. He traced one of them then raised a hand to his face, feeling around as if affirming his age. He nodded and sighed heavily. 

“Grandpa?” Penny urged. 

She reached a hand out patted his knee. Startled, he flinched back, his expression fearful.

“The girl,” she whispered. 

He began to shake his head, shrinking in on himself.

“Anton,” he said. “She’s just a little girl. I don’t know her. She reminds me of meine kleine schwester back home. That’s all.”

“I-I don’t,” Penny started, but he was pulling away from her, erratically glancing around the room as if for escape. 

She recognized the signs and knew that agitation was going to segue into a full blown outburst if she didn’t do something fast.

“It’s okay,” Penny said quickly, fervently, holding her hands up in a placating manner. “It’s okay. The girl is fine. Don’t worry, everything is going to be fine.”

The words seemed to soothe him to some degree. He stopped glancing wildly about the room and locked onto her. He nodded, still cowering slightly, but slowly and steadily eased himself back into a normal sitting position. 

“What happened to the girl, Grandpa?”

She knew it wasn’t wise to push him, but there was no going back, not now. 

It was a long minute before he continued, and when he did his voice sounded like it was being squeezed out of him.

“I knew Anton would not let it go. He was going to take her to the gas the next day, which meant there was only that night. I went to her barracks where the other Hebrews were. She was kept in the back corner, hidden by the women. They did not want me to take her. The women and even the men stood to stop me, but when the girl called my name and told them who I was, they did not stop us. 

We ran to the fence where I was supposed to be patrolling. There was a truck of the dead they were going to take out and bury in the next hour. The guards had gone to get more bodies. I told her to lie in the very back and wait until they were past the fence and the lights and then she could jump out and run for the trees.

She did not argue or ask questions. She was so brave.”

He paused and Penny realized that her heart was hammering in her chest, palms sweating profusely. 

“We were so close,” he said, and then his voice broke. “But I didn’t know that Anton had been watching me.”

Penny couldn’t stop the whimper that escaped her lips. Her great grandfather winced at the sound though he didn’t stop. Maybe he couldn’t stop.

“He hit me from behind and dragged her off the truck. I turned, my rifle pointing at him, but he already had his pistol to her head.

I told him to let her go. He was angry with me. He told me that if I let her go the Blockfuhrer would find out at roll call the next morning, and then it would be my family that would pay the price, my mother, my father, my…meine kleine schwester. He said I was being selfish, that I had not thought of them, and he was right. In the last letter Mother told me she was working the factory to support them because Father had fallen ill. My little sister…she…she was at home taking care of him.”

Her great grandfather was trembling now, the tears left unchecked as they cascaded over all the crevices that riddled his ancient face.

“I told Anton I didn’t know what to do. He said that I should go finish my patrol of the fence. He said to just walk…and that he would take care of it.”

Karl’s features were crumbling, falling in on itself like a sinkhole opening to the pit of his soul. 

“I…I looked down at her. She should have been afraid, terrified, but she wasn’t. Maybe if she had pleaded with me or even…if she had even asked.“

Karl stared out the window, his expression hardening.

“I would have killed Anton. I would have taken her and run.”

His voice turned vehement for a moment, but just as quickly as it had arrived, it fled. 

“She’s not afraid,” he almost whispered. “I see no judgement in her eyes. She…”

He broke off, choking on his own words.

“She only smiles at me, that small smile I had seen so many times, before the war, before all this mess, the butcher’s daughter, Kleine Blume…”

Penny’s breath caught in her throat.

“So I walked away…like Anton said…I walked away…and sometime later, when I was far enough that I could not see the truck even if I had turned around, I heard the sound of his pistol.”

He let out a long trembling breath. 

Penny sucked in air harshly, as if she’d just risen from the depths of a deep dive. This seemed to cut through the fog enveloping her great grandfather, and when he finally turned his gaze to her, his tear streaked face broke into a smile of recognition.

“Ah, my little Blume,” he said, his expression brightening. “When did you get here?”  



February 10, 2024 03:01

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3 comments

Denise LaPare
21:49 Feb 13, 2024

OMG....

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HC Edwards
21:51 Feb 13, 2024

I had the same reaction after I wrote the one part.

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HC Edwards
20:19 Feb 13, 2024

Also, I know this is sensitive content. I didn’t write this to garner sympathy for Karl but rather as an account of how the banality of evil allowed this situation to persist.

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