An image was taking shape in the corner of the hospital room. Not so much a vision but a vague impression. A humanoid form but elusive as willow the wisp, shimmering a little but full of shadows. Muddy brown shadows mutated into a subtle sparkle, a glimmer. It was beyond beautiful and yet dreadful. Although it was noiseless, I could sense it wanting to speak to me. I heard it calling over the beeps and sighs of the machines breathing for me and monitoring my every vital sign. I knew what it was, of course. Had been expecting it.
"Good news Hans," it seemed to tell me, "Your suffering here is over." This was good news. The cancer had been eating me alive for over three years. I was on palliative care as there was nothing further the doctors could do but keep me comfortable. And I was ready to go. I was tired to the bone, weary of the long years, the long pointless years. My wife had passed away ten years earlier from a sudden stroke, and my daughter had long ago abandoned me when she learned about my part in the war. She had called me "monster" and looked at me with disgust. She spat at my feet and left, and I never heard from her again. I was alone in the world. "Yes," I thought to the shape, "Yes, please, I am ready now." Relief washed over me. Good news, good news indeed.
And with no further ado, the shape hovered over my old worn-out body, settled on me, sank into these old bones, and merged with me. Oh, the comfort of it! The sweet gift of demise. My old skeleton of a body shuddered once, and I was free of the hoary thing.
I expected to feel myself pulled into a tunnel of white light, to experience a delicious feeling of unconditional love, to see (or at least sense) my wife. That is what they said happens in the books. I suppose I was a little bit afraid. Afraid to answer for the things I had done. But I knew (or hoped) the universe did not judge, was all forgiving, and understood our demons and missteps. But still, the war. I had been very young, but I had been there. Two weeks before my 19th birthday, the Nazis showed up at our family's small farm and took my 20-year-old sister and me with them. To fight for the Fatherland. High Hitler! I did not object but instead was excited and proud.
I had excelled in the atmosphere of the Third Reich. I was used to instantly obeying as my father was a stern disciplinarian. I was not squeamish, as it had been my job to slaughter the pigs and chickens on our farm. It was a job I could do without sentimentality. And my father and I believed Hitler to be the saviour of our homeland, so recently humiliated in the first world war, and I had learned to detest the filthy subhuman Jews as my father did. My dearest wish was to rise within the ranks to become a member of the elite SS and serve the Furor directly.
But the tunnel of light failed to appear, as did the unconditional love or any trace of my wife. Instead, I was in a mud brown cloud, thick, murky and cloying. My companion was still with me, and I asked what this place was?
"Between," came the answer.
"Between?" I asked.
"Yes, between. I have now some bad news".
If I still had had a body with any blood, it would have run cold, but as far as I could tell, I was just spirit, essence with nothing solid to define me. Was I doomed to Hell after all? Did Hell truly exist? I had written all that off as ancient myth decades ago. But now I suddenly wanted to return to my sick old body hooked up to the beeping machines and have this shadow, and it's bad news somewhere in the distant future, maybe to never show up, carry on as a sick old man with a chance at a different ending. "Bad news?" I asked.
The shadow figure was a creature of few words. It simply waved an appendage in front of me, and I saw faces. Several hundred faces. I knew them. I knew who they were. I knew by their shaved heads, emancipated appearance, striped pyjamas, and look of hopeless despair. They were some of my prisoners. From Auschwitz.
"You are destined to live out each one of their lives," the shape said. "One after the other. Living these lives, you will see your Hans self from your victims' view. You will understand your impact on life, this world, and them. This one will be first," indicating a small woman aged beyond her years. Her shaved scalp was patchy with infection from scratching at the lice, bedbugs, and scabies. Her eyes were sunken into a face that was so thin it looked like a skull painted with skin. But I remembered those eyes. I remembered them looking deep and beseeching into my own eyes as she begged for her daughter's life.
I remember her falling to her knees, grabbing my overcoat, sobbing and screaming, clutching her young child. I remember her promising to do anything, to do nasty sexual things to me and let me do whatever I wanted to her if I would only spare her little girl. But the little girl was just a toddler and of no use to us—just another filthy Jew-rat to feed. And there was no letting by prisoners in Auschwitz-we soldiers took what we wanted. My comrades were all watching, laughing, and egging me on to go ahead and let her do her dirty deeds. I laughed too. I wrenched the bawling child from her arms and handed her to one of the female guards to be taken immediately to the ovens. I kicked the woman in the face. The woman screamed again and tried to scramble to her feet to retrieve her child, but I hit her head with the butt of my rifle and knocked her out. She was taken away, and I saw her no more.
"This one will be the next," said the shape. It was a boy: a young boy, maybe six or seven years old. I remembered him too. He had been too young to be truly afraid, naive enough yet to believe the world was benevolent despite all he had seen in the few years he had been alive. He had willingly come with me when I held out my hand to him and told him we were going somewhere lovely because he was such a special boy and should not be here with the others in all this filth. I took him to Peter's room and traded him for several packages of American cigarettes and a bottle of schnapps. We all knew what Peter wanted with the boys we brought him. Peter smiled an ungodly smile that repulsed me when I delivered the child, but deliver him I did. The boy gave me a trusting smile as I handed him over. I never saw the boy again.
"This one will be next," said the shape and showed me a middle-aged man, badly crippled in one leg and a useless arm, broken and bruised, dangling by his side. I vaguely remember him. He was a favourite of ours to make sport of. We called him Schwein (pig in German) and made him wallow around in the mud on his good leg and arm for our amusement. He drowned on a rainy October day when he no longer had the strength to pull his head out of the foot-deep mud. We watched, laughed, and snorted pig noises at him as he spluttered and died.
"This one will be next," said the shape and indicated an older woman. The woman had escaped the ovens despite her age because she was reputed to be the best baker in Warsaw. She was put to work baking for us German soldiers, and we found she had earned her reputation. Her bread was soft and chewy with a slight tang of sourdough. Her stollen was perfection, and her streusel was melt in your mouth with just the right amount of crunch. But I had caught her stealing leftover stale bread to give to her bunkmates. She had tried to hide the crusts in her sleeve, but one had dropped out as she passed by me. Her face had gone white with terror. Yes, I knew they were starving in her barracks, as in all the barracks, starving to death, but nonetheless, stealing was stealing. I, myself, administered 40 blows to her scrawny wrinkled back. She was so proud she did not yell or moan with the first ten lashes. So I doubled my efforts, and she screamed. She fell to a faint on the ground after 20 lashes. I finished anyway. The last five lashes landed on a corpse. We had made all the prisoners in her block watch. We felt we must deter any impulse to steal.
"Oh no, please!" I begged the shape. "It was wartime. I had no choice! We thought it was the right thing to rid the world of Jews. If we had won the war, I would now be revered as a hero, not a monster!".
The shape said nothing.
I tried again. "You must understand, it was the time! We all did it! After the war, I was a kind man! A good man!"
The shape said, "There is no time. All is happening now. You must start. Now." And the muddy cloud began to fade. It cleared, and there arose the soft glowing light of mother love. There was a beginning. A start. I was becoming the infant that would grow up to be the woman whose child I had cruelly condemned to the ovens. As a newborn suckling on a loving mother's breast, I was fading into her. I was going to be her, and I was terrified that I had to meet me, Hans, and know the horror of me, Hans, as her. My memory of my life as Hans was beginning to fade, though I struggled to hold on. If we (she and Hans) could remember together, maybe, somehow, we could avoid the terrible fate. But innocence was descending, clean, fresh and pristine, and Hans was disappearing. There was no stopping it.
And she was just the first one. The other pathetic faces were fading too, but they would wait. They would wait for me, for Hans. "But there are hundreds of them! Have mercy!" I begged the figure as the full meaning of what it was telling me sank in.
"Your mercy is your own, to give or not. You choose your time. You choose your mercy. Which one of you will offer mercy? Who will receive it? I am not your forgiver; you are."
And I was then wholly a girl child, an infant. Starting over, starting again, back to a self utterly new but so familiar. Back to beginnings, back and forward, never now, never now, never now. Never over.