I wrote this a year ago now! Wow. My writing style has changed a lot.
There are some things that can’t be controlled; some things that are inevitable. Adam Heiser was about to witness such a phenomenon.
Adam did not believe in inevitability and every now and again, Fate likes to bring such people down a peg or two. It knocks on their door unbidden and forces Its way inside.
Nothing could have prepared Adam for what was about to happen. Not his childhood, not the various vulgar acts he’d witnessed while climbing up the rotting ranks of Nazi Germany, not even the times he’d envisioned the very scene in horror-filled, sweat-soaked nights.
His father had taught him that he could gain anything he worked hard for. Unfortunately, what his father had gained was gangrene and he’d died when Adam was just ten years old. Adam’s mother, Wilhelmina Heiser, was something else. More entity than woman, she prided herself in controlling every aspect of her life. She liked to boast that it was she who had allowed her womb to exorcise just one child. ‘More economic’ she said. ‘Easier to look after.’ (Of course, what she meant was: ‘Easier to control.’)
So it was unsurprising that Adam believed in utmost order. Unsurprising that he was a fairly influential and wealthy man, unlike most in 1943. Then again, Adam Heiser was no ordinary man. In fact, he was playing a very dangerous game indeed.
He had fallen in love with a Jew.
It had happened years ago when he was taking a solitary moonlit stroll through The Black Forest. Adam could traverse the area blindfolded (he often had as a child) and had even taken the liberty of building a small cabin in the heart of the forest. On that particular night Adam had been taking his usual route when he’d brushed by something small and smelly and scared.
The moon shone through the leaves and revealed a young woman. Her face was streaked with tears and her clothes were horribly ripped.
Thus followed the world’s shortest conversation:
“Don’t be scared…my name is Adam Heiser…”
“Are you here to finish me off, Herr Heiser?”
He’d half-dragged, half-carried the woman to his cabin. There, he’d tended to her wounds and nursed her slowly back to health. Later she told him that her name was Sarah. Three men had sexually assaulted her and left her for dead. Sarah revealed that she running from a violent husband and that she’d rather die than go back. Something inside Adam tugged at his heartstrings and he’d told Sarah she could stay the night. A night became a week. A week became a few months. Months became years. Sooner or later they were in love.
Of course, nobody knew about Sarah. Gossip spread like wildfire and the violent husband was sure to find out. Besides, it would shame his family if it was revealed that he was keeping a young woman in the forest – no matter the circumstances. And as the Deutschland became the Fuhrerland, it made even more sense not to tell anyone. The Nazis were always suspicious of people who kept secrets. They might even accuse Sarah of being a spy.
It was only later that Sarah told him her secret; that her world orbited around a six-pointed star. By then it was too late. They were head-over-steel-toed-boot in love. They had a little boy, Tobias, who was their pride and joy.
Now Adam reached his log cabin, again congratulating himself for picking such a brilliant location. It was near impossible to find the cabin unless you knew where to look. He was fumbling with the keys when he discovered that the door was unlocked. He pushed it open.
No. Suffice it to say that Adam wasn’t prepared at all.
Adam was looking down the barrels of four rifles. He recognised the make: Sturmgewehr 44. The latest update in Nazi weaponry. A fifth officer had his rifle pointed at Sarah and a little boy. The boy had been crying. There was a large gash in Sarah’s forehead.
“Heil Hitler.” Adam’s mouth moved of its own accord as his hands rose above his head. One of the officers lowered his rifle in disbelief.
“Don’t you recognise him?! It’s Adam Heiser. Lower your weapons! He’s not a threat.”
Adam forced himself to look away from the captives. Any form of recognition could get them all killed. Instead he focused his attention on the man that had first acknowledged him. It was Rupert Holder – his latest recruit.
“What’s going on here?”
“Somebody noticed this woman on the outskirts of the forest and radioed it in. We followed her here. She and the child seem well provided for; blankets, food, warmth. Somebody has been helping them and when we find out who, they’ll regret they day they were born.” Holder smiled maliciously. “What are you doing here?”
“I was taking a stroll through the forest when I happened upon this cabin,” Adam said. Years of practice made his voice sound calm and collected. He lied almost unconsciously. “I was curious.”
His eyes wandered back to Sarah and Tobias. “You beat her?”
“We roughed her up to loosen her tongue a little,” Holder shrugged. “Suddenly Fraulein here remembers she’s Jewish. Isn’t that funny? Which camp should we take them to?”
Adam hesitated. To keep his family alive would be to admit the one secret that even Sarah didn’t know.
“Mine,” he said softly.
“Right away. Come on, you heard the boss!”
Sarah and Tobias were shoved forward. As they passed him, Adam couldn’t help it. Their eyes met. He felt his breath catch unnaturally, like fabric in a barbed-wire fence.
“Don’t separate them.”
“What do you care about a filthy Jew and her bastard?”
“Just do as I say. Understood?”
The next morning…
Adam stared through his office window that overlooked the enclosure. It’d been twelve hours since he’d seen Tobias and Sarah herded out the cabin. The anguished look in Sarah’s eyes still burned in his memory. As overarching manager of the camp, he knew too well its conditions. They were conditions he’d feel uncomfortable letting a pig inhabit, let alone Sarah and his only child.
Adam longed to run down to the camp and find them but there was no way he could do that without attracting unwanted attention. Instead, his concern drove him to do the unthinkable – he requested that Sarah be brought to him. If Jens Bauer, his secretary, wondered why his boss would possibly want a private meeting with Jewish prisoner, he didn’t show it. Half an hour later Sarah was flung through his office door. It was all Adam could do not to run at her, cry at her feet, pepper her with kisses, hold her and never let go.
“You’re dismissed,” he told Bauer. When the door clicked shut, he found that he couldn’t move. Instead he stared at her, feeling everything and nothing at once.
It was Sarah who moved first, her arms outstretched. He waited for the embrace but none came. Instead she slapped him across the face.
“You own a camp?” she hissed. “You own a concentration camp?”
He opened his mouth to respond but she slapped him again. “How could you?!”
Her fists rained upon his face, his chest, his arms. She was crying out of pure fury now and as her sobs grew stronger and her punches grew weaker, he caught and held onto her wrists.
“Sarah, listen to me! I’m so sorry. I know it sounds pathetic and inexcusable, but I really am sorry. This isn’t what I wanted but when the Nazis ask you to work for them, you can’t say no. They’ll kill you!” He searched her face desperately for some kind of understanding or forgiveness. He found neither. “Please. You’ve got to listen. This isn’t who I am.”
She observed him sadly.
“I know that.”
He let go of her wrists now. His hands trailed upwards and cradled her face.
“How are you?” he asked gravely.
“He’ll be fine,” she said, taking a step away from him. Her eyes contained a kind of morbid desperation he’d never seen in them before. He felt the silence smother him like an overprotective mother kissing goodbye. Finally, “I need you to be completely honest with me, if it’s the only time you ever have or ever will.”
The accusation stung him like another slap.
“All the people in this camp…they’re going to die, aren’t they?”
“Yes.” Adam sat behind his desk, suddenly feeling weak. He’d never allowed himself to admit what he was really running – a death camp, an organised morgue, a private cemetery. Every single one of the men, women and children out there were going to die. The enormity of the revelation hit him like an incendiary bomb.
“How…?” Sarah trailed off but he had learned to finish her sentences over five years ago and knew what she meant. How will they kill us?
“There are chambers. At the end of the compound.”
“I’ve seen them.”
“People are crammed in there – perhaps even a hundred at a time. A guard will flip a switch to filter in poisoned gas.”
Now Sarah’s eyes flickered with understanding.
“How long do we have?”
“Which Block are you in?”
He felt his heart drown.
“A week at the very best.”
Adam sat opposite the mayor’s wife and her son Karl. He listened as the woman apologised for her husband’s absence – he was ill – and informed him that the mayor had sent her to ensure that Adam was running a tight ship. As far as she could tell, everything was running smoothly.
“Plenty of exercise, discipline and square meals,” Frau Pfennington said. “This really is a brilliant rehabilitation programme.”
Rehabilitation?! Adam blinked. Was she making a joke? Or was it possible that the woman had no idea what went on in these camps? He watched her but the glassy eyes gave nothing away. Perhaps she really had managed to convince herself that the Jews were unharmed in this so-called ‘programme.’ He almost envied her self-delusion.
“I think you should be stricter,” Karl spoke up. “They’re here ‘cause they’ve done bad things.”
Adam stared at the child, barely managing to disguise his loathing. He reminded himself that the kid was brainwashed. He was barely seven and his mother was taking him on tours of the camps…but still!
“Now we really must be going,” Frau Pfennington smiled. She rose from her seat.
Adam’s next action wasn’t planned. Some actions are not the outcome of meticulous planning but rather a half-mad spontaneity that leaves even the perpetrator shell-shocked. Sometimes the storm still hits despite the forecast. What he’d planned to do was show the mayor’s wife and Karl to the door. What he’d planned to do was to remain completely composed as always.
Instead Adam reached into his desk drawer, pulled out a handgun and pointed it at one of the most influential figures in the state.
“You’re not going anywhere.”
Pfennington’s face was the perfect fusion of fear and bemusement.
“What are you doing?” she demanded.”Do you know who I am?!”
“Clothes off. Now.”
“Is this some kind of joke?”
“I wouldn’t take that chance if I were you.”
She removed her hat first. Her fingers hovered at the buttons of her dress.
“At least let Karl go,” she begged.
“Oh yes. I’d almost forgotten. The boy too. Clothes off.”
“What did you do to them?” Sarah whispered.
“Just a few sleeping pills.” Adam closed the cupboard door on the unconscious Karl and his mother.
“This won’t work.”
“It has to.” Adam pulled the hat further down her face. She was wearing the mayor’s wife’s clothes and Tobias was wearing Karl’s. “Half an hour ago, a rich woman and her son entered my office. In a few minutes, another woman in the exact same clothes and her son will exit. Nobody will know the difference.”
“They’ll kill you if they find out.”
“Don’t worry about me. Go to the place we first met,” he said firmly. “I’ll meet you there.” He knelt beside Tobias. “You’re going to have to be a big boy, okay? No talking until you’re out of here and Mama says you can.”
“Good.” He ruffled the boy’s hair and refrained from giving him a hug. He reminded himself that this wasn’t goodbye – this was a hiatus and a very short one at that. He stood and turned his attention back to Sarah.
“Are you ready?”
He never found out if she was because there was a knock on his door and Bauer entered.
“Ahh, Bauer! Could you please escort Frau Pfennington and Karl out the premises? She has a headache so don’t tire her with conversation.”
The second the door shut, Adam collapsed wearily into his chair. Painful seconds ticked by. Minutes passed and no alarms erupted, no gunshots were fired. He allowed himself the smallest of breaths.
Although you might not recognise it, Fate has a sense of humour. It has no mother to teach It not to play with Its food. It torments Its victims before It drops the real bombshell. Why? Because It can. Adam could sense something was wrong when he saw Bauer re-enter his office so soon.
It was bad luck that Sarah had forgotten to wear Pfennington’s coat and further bad luck that Adam, in their hurry, hadn’t noticed. Misfortune also had it that Bauer noticed soon after they left the compound and ran back to collect it from the office cupboard himself. There, of course, he found the real mayor’s wife and her son who were slowly waking up.
Fate. How droll.
“Bauer…I can explain…”
Dazed, Bauer knelt and untied the struggling woman.
Again, the gun found Adam’s hand and he pointed it at all three of them.
“You have no bullets,” Bauer scoffed. “I’ve known for ages. You’re a coward.”
“Just wait until my husband finds out about this!” The mayor’s wife was enraged.
When the mayor did find out that his wife and Karl had been threatened at gunpoint and trussed like turkeys, he recovered from whatever mysterious malady he’d been suffering from and came in person to the camp, flanked by three guards.
Adam had only met the Mayor once – and from a distance. This was very much a personal encounter. The mayor’s fist swung and connected with his stomach. Adam dropped to his knees, spluttering. He felt his shirt collar being grabbed and clawed at his throat, gasping for air. The next thing he knew his head was smashed against the wooden floor and colours danced sickeningly before his eyes.
“Filth.” The Mayor spat. Adam was only faintly aware of the saliva dribbling down his face. He didn’t wipe it away. “How dare you threaten my family?”
After ten minutes of being beaten, Adam weakly recounted the whole story.
“Where are they now?” A guard asked him.
“I swear I don’t know.”
“What shall we do with him?”
Adam found himself staring into the Mayor’s cold eyes.
“You helped a Jew. You’re not worth the ground you lie on.”
“Please…” he coughed.
The Mayor turned away.
Sarah was crouched in the undergrowth. The wide-brimmed hat was discarded and the dress had been torn to make travel easier. She didn’t hear the gunshot where she was but she didn’t have to. She rose slowly and grasped Tobias’ hand.
“Your Papa did a very brave thing,” she told her son. “He won’t be joining us but we have to continue. We’ll make him proud, yes?”
It’s incredible what humans are capable of. Sarah dragged her eyes away from the direction of the city. She turned and made her way through the undergrowth. A boy was hoisted on her waist, a thousand memories weighed her down and Fate’s laugh echoed cruelly in her ears.