It all had happened slowly, first the uncomfortable silences filling the gaps where friendly quiet once had been, gradually turning into days stretching into weeks when they didn’t see one other anymore. There was much going on in the world, but to two boys who had once been more brothers than friends, nothing would have been able to keep them apart.
Briefly glancing at his reflection in the mirror above the small sink that had long since ceased to bring water through the rusted pipes, the young man with a practical mane of dark blond hair turned away and blinked his pale blue eyes to clear the tears beginning to sting at the corners. With cheeks flushed the color of the bloody red sunset streaking the western sky and lips parched and parted, Dietrich threw himself down in the wooden chair beside the door to the abandoned shack on the edge of the Konzentrationslager.
His life…what was his life but an endless torment of being told around by men who didn’t know what it was like to be him? Dietrich longed for even a cup of cold water to splash on his burning cheeks and to clear his eyes sizzling with tears. A man like him did not cry, did not allow himself the benefit of emotional drain that they would give him.
Dietrich glanced into the cracked mirror again and couldn’t recognize the pale face with flaming cheeks staring back at him. The blue eyes as pale as the ice glazing over the Graustufen in wintertime glassily roved over every line in his face from the furrows now smoothed above his brows to the creases around his eyes.
At any moment, they would find him, and he would be duly redirected to the work that still remained to be done before his shift was over at eleven.
In Birkenau, it was always better never than late.
Another truckload had just arrived at the gates, and the man striding past with his sack of rocks burdening his shoulders could hardly do but to glance over at the people being forcefully hurried out of the cattle trucks. Alert, attentive dark eyes gazed on at the armed SS men shouting sharply at the women and children hesitantly hanging back and only being dragged forward by the muzzles of nearly seventy-five guns prodded at them. Crying and the frantic murmur of voices lifted into the air in a pathetic wailing, pathetic only to those stripe-clad figures struggling by in the straggling line bound for the building project on the other side of the camp.
Still, pitiful though it was, Josef couldn’t seem to pull his eyes away from the people being formed in a line patrolled by two SS men making their selections. One to the right, then three to the left. Two to the left, and then one to the right. The choosing went on until there was no one left standing but the SS men beginning to dissipate and go about their respective duties, here and there a hearty German laugh as some crude joke was cracked about the new prisoners.
Josef would have paced over to the group and separated them all, demanding why in all of Europe they had the heart to separate husbands and wives, parents from children, and siblings from each other. For he had seen it all, knew what it meant when the young, old, and infirm were condoned to the right and the others to the left. Some of those banished to this particular Konzentrationslager had the ability to work still within them, and the Nazis would use every ounce of that strength until the prisoners dropped where they stood out of sheer exhaustion. After all, they were dispensable in the SS eyes, merely a good to be replaced once broken.
All of a sudden, a blast split the air, causing Josef to nearly drop the sack of rocks eating into his shoulder blades. For all he was worth, he kept his thin yet iron grip on the bag and braced his legs as his gaze went to the tall, lean figure striding to the centre of the broad dirt space with the wood platform erected for the SS men to regularly hold roll call. With the grey visor cap pulled down over dark blond hair and face cast in shadow, the soldier easily hopped up the steps and stood with his hands clasped behind his back. For a moment, he stood with his chilly-eyed gaze sweeping across the gathering mass of Jews stumbling away in fear of the SS men holding 98k Karabiners at all readiness.
From the crisp grey SS Totenkopfverbände uniform to the heavy black jackboots stained with a strange reddish-brown substance, the Sturmführer appeared as none other than the young, ruthless junior assault leader within the branch of the SS assigned to Birkenau. Each day, Josef heard stories of this youth who seemed to be rapidly filling the footsteps of those that had gone before him. When old Moshe from barracks twenty-nine had failed to show for the curfew, a shadow of a rumor had been whispered about that the young Sturmführer had supposedly kept the old man behind to finish his work in the mine. It was already grueling labor for the fifty-nine-year-old suffering from a violent bout of tuberculosis from the fumes in the mine, but when he had been specifically asked to remain behind, many suspected that it was the end for poor old Moshe who was later found with his old spine finally broken. He had joined the ranks of those like Yaakov, Elazar, Gershom, and Lemuel who had never returned.
Now, as Josef watched the Sturmführer finally standing before his own eyes, the sack finally slipped from his broken fingers and landed with a thud just inches away from his feet purpled with cuts and bruises.
His lips mouthed the name that flew into his mind, convinced that those clear, pale blue eyes and the noble profile could belong to none other than Dietrich Von Weiß. From the tall, strong figure to the dark, glossy blond hair gleaming under the SS visor cap with the familiar Totenkopf insignia, everything bespoke the young German boy from Leipzig.
Josef felt his eyes closing tightly and his throat constricting in upon itself until he could barely draw a breath. Lifting fingers twisted from the bones having been splintered several times, the young man lightly brushed the yellow and red star sewn to his striped uniform.
Everything was now coming into complete focus though his eyes remained firmly closed. He didn’t want to see what had happened during the years of growing apart. He couldn’t bear to see what those years had done to Dietrich.
“Gather all those from Barracks 123 and 421,” barked Von Weiß with a snap of his blue eyes, giving brief gestures to the consecutive buildings. “We’re going on a walk.”
More SS seemed to materialize from out of nowhere as the group of unsuspecting Jews before the platform tried to disperse, cries breaking out in the evening air. The sun was getting low, but when Josef opened his eyes, he could see in what direction the men were being directed. German shepherds growled and yanked at leashes, looking to their masters as they paced alongside the crowd rapidly complying with the SS as several warning shots rang out.
Josef found himself being swept away on the edge of the crowd, the guards right beside him with the gleaming steel of the Karabiners ever glinting in his view.
Dietrich forced a smile onto his face at the Oberführer gazing on at the process, lifting his right hand in the customary salute. Yet something quivered deep within him as he caught from the corner of his eye a few full-grown men whimpering and sobbing like infants. As soon as he had returned, Oberführer Schneider had given him the task of carrying out the work the older SS man knew would harden the young Sturmführer’s resolve. Enough of this type of work would eventually transform him into the indifferent SS officer that every man became, and Schneider was confident that Von Weiß’s loyalty to the Fatherland wouldn’t permit him to do otherwise.
Dietrich strode in front of the mob with his hands clasped behind his back, his chin lifted, and eyes fixated on the concrete building at the very edge of the camp. While perhaps some of the prisoners suspected where they were headed, he heard the SS barking to the prisoners that there was work to be finished before retiring that night.
Yes, but not their work, Dietrich thought to himself as his breath began to come faster to his lips and his heart fluttered like a live bird in his chest, beating its wings against his ribs. The concrete building was behind several others, so there was no way that they knew for sure where they were going.
Whatever made him turn around, he had no idea, but it would freeze the blood in his veins and send a chill shooting up his spine.
As the lifted head turned around to survey the great mass of straggling bodies, the blue eyes locked gazes with an intense, dark-eyed one several metres behind him.
“Dietrich,” the parched, peeling lips mouthed as the gaze remained immobile.
If it hadn’t been for the SS men looking to him for direction, Dietrich felt as if his legs would be frozen beneath him and he would not be able to go a step further.
“Josef,” he mouthed back with an almost indiscernible shake of his head.
In an instant, everything from their childhood raced through his mind and, inevitably, to the past three years when he had first seen Josef’s face only occasionally at nightfall in Leipzig to when he no longer was sure of the Hopkins family’s existence in the city. Those had been the days when the Nazi net had been tightening as a noose round the necks of the helpless Jews and also any person in disagreement with the Führer’s Third Reich.
Had he cared? The question had never before surfaced in Dietrich’s mind until that moment as he dragged his gaze away and strove to focus on the path before them through the different avenues of Birkenau.
It had just been the way it happened. First, his parents had gently suggested he not visit with Josef Hopkins as often, and then they had refused to let him even occasionally see the nineteen-year-old Jewish boy. More quickly than he had even dared to admit to himself, he had volunteered for service in the Fatherland army and had been sent on various assignments around the Deutchland. Even if he had wanted to, he couldn’t have visited Josef.
Yet what was this strange emotion suddenly springing defiantly up in his heart as they finally neared the concrete building? Dietrich swallowed hard and flung open the solid iron door with a nod to the masked man holding a cylindrical metal cannister in heavily gloved hands.
“Everyone get inside!” he shouted at the top of his lungs as he flashed out his own pistol threateningly.
Myriads of more colorful epithets were screamed by the SS guards as the drove of stumbling men agonizingly slowly began to fill the room beyond with pegs upon the walls for shirts, trousers, and caps. Many refused to be shoved inside by the masses behind them until they were forced to their knees by a Karabiner barrel and trampled over. The air resonated with such shouting, crying, and bitter weeping that Dietrich’s head began to ache unbearably and his long-lasting temper began to wear away. Why couldn’t they all just get inside and then have this thing over with instead of him being forced to stand there and watch on as the grotesque figures writhed in fear so strong it was physical agony to their bodies?
And then he met eyes with Josef again.
Dietrich had been convinced he would find unbearable hate pulsating in the distance between he and his childhood friend, that he would see anger and broken trust quivering in the bright dark eyes.
Yet what he found was almost more than he would be able to bear if he had found what he had imagined.
Flooded with tears shimmering like the stars appearing in the dusky sky above, filled with tangible wistfulness and such brotherly love that it seemed impossible, Josef’s brown eyes stared back as his lips curved in a small, sad smile.
“Remember when that one afternoon we found that small dog on the side of the road? He was blind, yet trusted the people in Leipzig to always bring him the food he needed to survive and that they would never hurt him.”
Dietrich barely nodded, his eyes darting to the SS soldiers occupied in driving each and every one of the mass of men into the building.
“Get inside,” he said in a low voice. “Josef, they will shoot you if you stand out here for much longer…there is another train coming in tonight.”
Josef shook his head as he looked away and let his gaze wander over the remaining crowd.
“That day that we saw him was the last time,” he said quietly with a small nod. “I wish we had stayed just an hour longer.”
“He was just a dog, Josef,” stated Dietrich harshly. “Death comes finally to all things, yet just at different paces. It was the dog’s time.”
“Yes, but it was premature. Premature because when I found him the next day lying along and bloody next to the road, it was evident that a group of teenage boys from Leipzig had been responsible. He was defenseless and harmless…had done nothing to deserve it, Dietrich. Imagine that poor dog being tortured to death with no way to defend himself. He had been taught to trust those around him, but it was those in the end that had his blood on their hands.”
There was silence for a moment between them. The crowd had almost wholly disappeared into the building, and now the SS guards stood with their 98k Karabiners still in their grips.
“Get inside,” Dietrich said again through gritted teeth. “Josef, I won’t tell you again.”
“You don’t have to do this,” Josef said over his shoulder as he reluctantly dragged his feet forward, his brows drawn together in agonizing pain. “Dietrich, you can stop this—”
“I can’t,” replied Dietrich with pain beginning to eat away at his marble-like features.
“It’s never too late,” Josef cried as the door was slammed shut behind him and the lock was drawn shut with a near-deafening screech.
Immediately, Dietrich’s ears began ringing with the very absence of sound. The SS guards lingered outside of the broad iron door, tossing about jests that grated against the young Sturmführer’s ears until he felt he could bear it no longer. Hands shaking, he replaced the pistol at his belt and clapped his hands for attention. He could feel the Gaskammerarbeiter’s eyes fixed on him behind the eerie mask while he waited for instruction, and could feel the seconds ticking by.
“Go about your duties,” he snapped at the guards who rose their eyebrows and moved to stride away back to their duty. His jaw set in a hard, straight line, Dietrich narrowed his eyes and with an abrupt gesture arrested the attention of the Gaskammerarbeiter.
“What, Sturmführer?” he inquired in a muffled tone from the depths of the mask.
“Come down here and ensure that this door is sealed,” ordered Dietrich coldly, eyeing the narrow gap between the bottom edge of the iron door to the threshold. “If fumes escape, then this will not be as effective and may harm some of our own.”
The man easily slid down the ladder from the roof of the concrete building and sauntered over to where Dietrich was standing. With the air of one who is merely doing something from duty to a superior and less because he was convinced there was an issue, the soldier knelt down on the ground and used his finger to measure the width of the gap.
The next moment, the body was lying on the ground with the helmet torn from his head and cast to the ground beside him. Fondling the cold steel of his pistol, Dietrich bit his lip and glanced furtively about him. One couldn’t be in more obvious surroundings, it seemed.
In a minute, the body had disappeared behind the concrete building and the young Totenkopfverbände soldier hesitated outside, trying to keep his breaths normal and even.
Everything was racing through his mind at a thousand kilometers per second as he kept looking from the dying sunset to the massive iron door that had screamed so loudly upon its great hinges whilst being opened. They had trusted him, given him the position of Sturmführer, and given him this task that they viewed as one of the most critical. It must go without a flaw, they had told him. And if so…Dietrich was well-aware of the consequences, to say the least.
Closing his eyes, he inhaled a deep breath and with all the pressure that he could exert, drew back the lock. Cold perspiration gathered on his forehead as Dietrich struggled with all of his strength to keep the pressure on the hinges while he pulled open the door.
“Keep quiet!” he hissed to the writhing bodies. “Follow me, and I will show you where to go.”
And, under the cover of darkness, the Sturmführer led the mass of bodies to the nearest set of barracks and let them in without another word.
The next week, there was a discreet notice sent to the higher command that another Sturmführer was needed at Birkenau.
Although the prisoners who had seemingly disappeared into the massive camp had escaped punishment, the man who had risked all to rescue them had instead met their fate