"Papa!" David uttered again. Hugging his father, David could feel how much thinner Jakob was, but at least he had him in his arms again.
"Zuninkeh," Jakob answered in a frail voice. When they finally separated, David flinched at his father's appearance. Hunched forward, he looked like an old man. His skin was tight and waxy, and a sickly dullness radiated from his eyes.
"Here, Papa, sit down," David replied, nudging another man from the corner of a vacant bench.
Shakily, Jakob extended a bone-thin arm and slowly eased himself down. Just that small movement seemed to take a monumental effort. David knelt comfortably beside him, trying his best to ignore the surreal tapping on his shoulder from the Grim Reaper.
"I've been so worried about you," David said warmly, feeling responsible for the deplorable state his father was in. "I tried to get some food to you…did you get it?"
Jakob lifted his head some, and gazed at David with tired eyes. "Yes," he answered, "but there were others…"
"Papa! You didn't?" David bit his lip. Now wasn't the time for admonishments. "That's okay," he said. "Are you hungry now? Can I get you something to eat?"
David's heart leapt for joy at his father's grateful smile. "It would be good…not to die on an empty stomach."
"Stay right here, I'll be back." Not letting the truth in Papa's statement deter him, David sprang up and rushed towards the stairway.
Since the end of June, all of the Sonderkommando had been moved from their old block to the crematoriums. In this building, that had meant living upstairs in the attic, which sat right over the furnace room. Knowing he only had a few minutes, David hurried outside and over to the ground level entrance. He climbed the narrow staircase into the living quarters and headed straight to his bunk. Grabbing his rucksack, he spilled the contents out on the bed. There had been a decrease in prisoner transports lately, which resulted in fewer caches of food. He hadn't discovered very much in the last week except for a few crackers and a tin of sardines. But David's spirit lifted as he gathered the meager rations to bring to his father.
He stuffed the items in his jacket and ran back downstairs. Returning to the changing room, David's heart sank as he saw Papa struggling to take off his blue and grey striped shirt. He had already shed his dirtied trousers and they lay piled on the floor by his feet.
"Here, Papa," David said, as he sat down beside him. "Let me help you."
Once he'd removed the shirt, David tried not to linger too long looking at Jakob's emaciated body. He took the crackers out of his pocket first and handed them to Papa. Without wasting a second, Jakob snatched up the thin wafers and stuffed them greedily in his mouth. David showed him the sardine can and watched with a satisfied grin as Papa's eyes twinkled a little bit.
"You brought me a meal fit for a king," Jakob praised.
David let the words soak into his heart as he concentrated on peeling back the aluminum lid with the slotted key. The oily fish smell spilled from the container, filling the air around them with the scent and drawing the attention of other prisoners standing nearby. No doubt, they were also devastatingly hungry, yet none of them tried to interfere. Their efforts would have been futile, because as soon as David handed Jakob the tin, he hastily devoured the silvery fish, barely taking any time to chew his food.
With a sense of satisfaction, David watched Papa lavishly lick the inside of the can. He set the empty tin down and finished licking off his fingertips.
"That was the best meal I have ever eaten," Jakob said.
David smiled, but he could see that several of the undressed Jews were already making their way to the gas chamber. "Papa, I…I don't know…"
Jakob raised a boney-knuckled hand and stroked David's cheek. "My time has come, mayne kaddishel. But Yahweh has allowed me to see you before I go."
David took hold of Papa's hand, cherishing the pleased look on his father's face. Although he knew they only had a few more moments to spend together, David couldn't think of anything to say.
Jakob shifted uneasily on the bench. "David," he asked solemnly, "the gas…does it hurt?"
Unprepared for Jakob's question, David swallowed hard. He didn't want to lie to his own flesh and blood, but could he really deceive his own father? How could he live if Papa's last feelings were of anguish and hurt? With their time running out, and his conscience in turmoil, David had to make a decision.
"When you go inside the room," he began, "make sure you sit down by one of the metal columns. They're made of wire mesh…" David's voice cracked. "When the lights go out, breathe deep, all right? Breathe very deeply. You'll just go to sleep—"
David jerked his head away. He couldn't keep looking at Papa. How did it come to this, that the only comfort he could give his father was how to make the gas kill him faster? A burning flash of shame ignited through him. He'd vowed to try and survive as long as he could, and not die as a coward. But now, seeing his father ready to step into that horrid chamber was too much to bear. Before he could even consider what he was doing, David stood up and quickly started taking his clothes off.
"David! What are you thinking?"
"You're not going to die without me," David announced. He took a quick glance around, making sure there were no SS nearby. Jakob feebly shook his head, the look of utter heartbreak on his face. Stripped naked, David offered a hand to Jakob. "Come, Papa. A lot of people have been waiting a long time to see us."
Stiffly, Jakob stood up. "How can I die in peace," he cried, clearly distraught, "knowing that you are throwing your life away?"
"It's my life, Papa," David answered curtly, tightening his grip on Papa to hide his own trembling. "And this is how I choose to end it."
Leading Jakob, David ducked his head as he passed by the first SS officer. Fortunately, there was a large crowd heading into the gas chamber, making it hard to see each individual. David pulled Jakob closer and kept his head down. If another Sonderkommando recognized him, David felt certain they wouldn't say anything. The trick would be to get by the two SS officers standing on either side of the narrow entrance; especially one hardened Nazi in particular.
Hauptscharführer Otto Moll was poised by the thick iron-mounted wooden door, eying the condemned prisoners with a smug expression as they entered the concrete chamber. The Sonderkommando called him 'Malahamoves', Hebrew for 'Angel of Death', and in David's opinion, the monster had earned that title a hundred times over.
Frequently, when they would wait outside for a transport, Moll loved to play his own version of "sport". He'd pull one man aside and stick a lit cigarette in his mouth. Then, he'd pace off about fifty feet, draw his revolver and fire. An excellent shot, Moll often extinguished the cigarette on the first try. After enjoying the accolades from his fellow SS, he'd let the petrified prisoner go. Other times, he'd change hands and fire with his left. Invariably, he'd utter a lame, "Ach, I missed!" if the victim dropped to the ground.
Luckily for David, just as he approached the doorway, Moll's attention was diverted by an approaching Kapo. Once inside the chamber, David held firmly onto Jakob and headed for one of the rear columns.
"David, are you sure this is what you want?" Jakob rasped, his whole body shaking from the exertion.
Stopping at the squared metal pillar, David leaned the older man against it so he could rest. "Yes, Papa. My days are numbered here. The Nazis know we've seen too much; they won't take the risk of letting any of us survive. At least this way, I'll die with someone I love, not with a bunch of strangers."
Jakob gazed at him with an intense, almost penetrating, sadness. Slowly, the old eyes turned towards the ceiling. Overhead, a few lights enclosed in protective wire cages illuminated the dreary chamber. "They've even got shower heads in here," Papa noted.
"They're not real," David explained. "It's all part of the ruse. Making people think they're just going to take a shower—"
Two condemned men suddenly stepped out of the growing crowd and approached David, getting his attention.
"Why are you here?" one of them asked, confronting him. "I saw you in the other room. You work here, you're a Sonderkommando!"
Surprised, David said, "I'm not bothering you. Go mind your own business."
The man's partner stepped forward. "We're not accusing you of any wrongdoing. We just want to know why you've decided to die of your own free will."
"I wouldn't call it that," David muttered. In a louder tone, he added, "We're all destined to die, I'm just making the decision myself instead of letting the Nazis do it for me."
"But can't you see?" the first one exclaimed. "We have to die now. You might be one of the lucky ones and survive. Who better than you to avenge our deaths by telling the world how we were murdered?"
"Yes, exactly," said the second. "These Nazi pigs are laughing now, but our people need to survive so that they can see these murdering bastards in their graves!"
Before David could convince them to leave him alone, the two men grabbed his arms and began dragging him through the packed chamber. David tried to resist but, with no shoes on, his bare feet slid freely along the smooth floor and he couldn't get a foothold. Twisting his head around, David caught one last glimpse of Papa.
"God be with you," he heard him say.
Within a few moments, David had been hustled to the front entrance. With one last giant shove, he was tossed out of the chamber only to land smack in the middle of a group of grey uniforms. Karol, the Kapo, was the first to recognize him.
"You bloody shit!" he yelled, and raised his club in the air.
Before David could get on his feet, the blow landed across his shoulders and knocked him back down. He tried to get up again, but a second strike on his back laid him prone. Naked and in pain, David knew he had to get off the floor. But each time he tried to stand, Karol would target another sensitive area and make David double over in agony.
When David could finally stand up, Moll stepped in and grabbed him by the throat. "You fucking Yid!" he swore, spitting in David's face. "Get this through your stupid head: we decide how long you stay alive and when you die, not you! Now, piss off, back to work!"
Shaking from head to foot, David stumbled into the dressing room, but not before hearing Malahamoves issue the gassing command.
"All right, give them something nice to chew on."
Somehow, in his dazed state, David found his clothes and managed to slip his pants back on. The pain from Karol's beating, coupled with what was happening to Papa in that chamber, suddenly overwhelmed him. His vision went black, and he fell unconscious to the cement floor.
When David came to, he was lying on some bundled bags in one of the store rooms. Short of breath, his heart racing, he let two fellow workers help him up and guide him over to an open window for some fresh air. Still dizzy from his beating, David broke out in a cold sweat, and started shivering uncontrollably. Someone offered him a cigarette. He grabbed it and tried to take a deep inhalation off the lit cigarette. The sharp smoke made him cough, which sent renewed jolts of pain through his body, but he took a second drag and then a third. Gradually, his heartbeat slowed and his muscles quit shaking.
Keeping his attention glued on the lone tree out in the yard, David didn't notice the other men leave. When he heard someone behind him clear his throat, David jerked and turned around, expecting to suffer another beating. Thank goodness, it was one of the Jewish kapos, Kaminski.
"I heard what happened," Kaminski said. "You shouldn't let your nerves get the best of you like that."
David bowed his head. He felt like a failure. "My father was in there," he said, keeping his head down. "I just didn't want him to die alone."
David heard the Kapo give a long sigh. "I can understand how you feel," he said, "but this must never happen again." Kaminski stepped closer. "Now listen to me, you wouldn't want to please our tormentors by dying without putting up a fight…"
David peered up at him. He'd been hearing rumors of a resistance movement, a plan to revolt and escape en masse from the camp. Was this what Kaminski was alluding to?
"We need to be strong, David. Our day is coming. When it arrives, we will show these dogs that we are men, and that we Jews are not afraid to fight."
Kaminski put his hand on David's shoulder, but didn't say anything else. Disappointed that the Kapo wasn't entrusting him with any secret information, David was left with nothing but the aching of his wounds, and the irreversible tear in his heart.
Kaminski pulled him in a little closer. "I know you're hurting, but you must get back to work," he said. "When you are ready, go to the furnace room. We will set your father's body aside, so that you may recite the Kaddish." He smiled sympathetically, and walked out of the room.
David looked back outside. It was a sunny and bright, with a cool breeze blowing in through the open window. He'd have to find out what day this was, so he could remember when he lost his father. Taking a shaky breath, David tried to gather himself together. Papa was at peace now, playing with his grandson in Heaven. David had to be happy with that. Otherwise, it'd be selfish to want him here, still alive in this hell, suffering and in pain.
Glancing up at the sky, David longed to see something divine—like an angel or maybe even a glimpse of Heaven—anything to put his heart at ease. He wished he could hear Papa's voice, telling him that dying was just another step into a different life; one that was filled with joy and love, and where all suffering ended forever.
But there was no such revelation. No indication that a spiritual escape from this godforsaken place was even possible. Feeling hurt and utterly alone, David stepped stiffly out of the sunlight and turned towards the rumbling coming from the fiery furnaces.
Later that evening, after all the bodies had been removed and the gas chamber walls cleaned and whitewashed, David went upstairs. Naked corpses lay in front of each furnace, sorted into different piles depending on whether they would burn either fast or slow. Fatter ones burned more quickly than those who were just skin and bones…like Papa. Not exactly sure where to look for Jakob's body, David was about to ask one of the stokers when, unexpectedly, Leon came up to him. The man's face and clothing was covered in black soot from tending the ovens, yet there was an air of compassion about him.
"Over here," he said, pointing down the corridor. "We've been waiting for you."
Touched by the normally gruff man's show of kindness, David followed him to where a small group of Sonderkommando were forming around a trolley. A slender body was lying there covered with a colorfully patterned tallit. Following tradition, one of the shawl's fringes was cut. As David got closer, a man leaned over and lifted the covering from the victim's face. It was Papa.
A sense of relief swept through David. There were no wounds or marks on his father's face, and his skin hadn't changed color, the usual sign of slow suffocation. Papa actually looked very peaceful, and David was grateful for that one small blessing.
"Look, here's the Rabbi," he heard someone say.
In truth, the man walking towards the group wasn't an actual rabbi, but one of the very ultra-orthodox Jews who worked upstairs. In an attempt to spare these devout men the filthy labor of the gas chambers, the head Kapos had assigned them the task of drying hair from the heads of women. After being gassed, their long tresses were cut and hung to dry in the rising heat from the furnaces. David was pleased that such a religious man would preside over Papa's ceremony.
"Are you the son?" the rabbi asked David. Nodding his head, David went over and stood next to him. With their backs towards the blazing ovens, the rabbi opened his prayer book and began thumbing through the well-worn pages. The painful welts from David's beating throbbed unmercifully, making it hard for him to tell whether his broken heart or bruised body hurt the worst.
"Let us begin," the rabbi said.
"May the great name of the Lord be exalted and hallowed throughout the world which he hath created according to his will," a chorus of voices recited. "May He establish His kingdom in your lifetimes and in your days, and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel…"
David kept looking at Papa, mouthing the words he knew by memory, but not feeling them. His heart was too filled with pain and grief, and he couldn't honestly praise God at this moment. Something inside of him was convinced that the Almighty wasn't here in Auschwitz, or Birkenau, or any concentration camp. It was the same part that wasn't convinced Papa was really dead, and that David was now an orphan, the sole surviving member of his family. Yet, as the memorial prayer ended, and Papa's body was slid into the oven, the ceremonial words echoed in David's mind, and in them he found a tiny shred of spiritual comfort.
Rest in peace, Jakob Ishmael Starsky. Your suffering is over.
The tension in the hospital room was palpable. Hutch hesitantly pulled himself out of the storytelling to look at Starsky. His partner's expression was just as he expected. On the outside, Starsky appeared calm and pensive, but the intense radiance coming from his deep blue eyes told Hutch there was a lot of turmoil smoldering behind that façade. Starsky was no doubt thinking about his own father's death, and in true Starsky fashion, keeping the personal tragedy hidden under layers of contemplative stillness.
Hutch glanced over at Kendrick, not surprised to see him sitting quietly by David. Hutch would've bet money that there had been an unseen channeling of support traveling between the two friends throughout their painful recollections. Hutch couldn't help but feel privileged to hear such a firsthand account of these men's stories.
It took Hutch by surprise, then, when David checked his watch and said, "Well, Kendrick, I think it's time we were on our way. I'm sure these youngsters want to talk amongst themselves without the old folks around. Plus, we have a long drive ahead of us tomorrow."
Kendrick nodded and stiffly stretched out his legs before getting out of his chair.
Starsky looked at Hutch with a shocked expression. Taking the cue, Hutch said, "Wait, you haven't finished the story yet! I mean, how did you get out of Auschwitz, or even make it all the way over to this country?"
"Ahem…" Starsky grunted.
Hutch turned and looked at his partner. Starsky was jerking his head and eyebrows up, as if Hutch was forgetting something.
"Oh," he said unsurely, "And we want to know…what happened to Hannah?" Hutch smiled inwardly, sure he'd asked the right thing. He wanted to hear more, but neither he nor Starsky could insist that their visitors stay longer. Kendrick and David had shared more than enough of their personal lives, and if they felt it was time to leave, that was their choice. "We realize you do have a long drive tomorrow," Hutch continued, as Kendrick offered a hand to help David rise. "Maybe when Starsky gets out of here, we can drive up the coast and visit you? Hear the rest of the story then?"
Hutch stared hard at Starsky. He knew if given the choice, Starsky wouldn't want to wait that long, but the older men had made their decision.
As if he understood what Hutch was driving at, Starsky meekly nodded. "Would that be okay, David? Us coming up to visit you sometime?"
Kendrick stuck his hands in his sweater pockets. His neutral expression indicated the ultimate answer rested with David.
"No," David answered, unexpectedly. He glanced at Kendrick, smiling slightly as their eyes locked together for a few moments. "I think my friend would agree with me, but I hate waiting," David said, breaking out in a big smile. "Besides, wasn't it was a Jew who said, 'There's no time like the present?'"
"So what happened?" Starsky asked impatiently, barely waiting for Kendrick and David to sit back down. "You mentioned something about a revolt. Did you escape then? Did Kendrick help you?"
David's grin faded away. "That was a dark day, for many of us," he answered, settling in his seat by the bed. He waited for Kendrick to sit back in his chair before continuing. "Several of the Sonderkommando had been trying to organize a mass escape of the entire camp. They had connections with the Resistance operating outside of Birkenau, to the point where even things like guns and ammunition were being smuggled into our quarters."
"So where'd the money come from?" Starsky asked, his ears perking up at 'resistance' and 'smuggling'. This part of his cousin's story sounded very intriguing, almost like a spy movie, and Starsky didn't want to miss a single fact. "I mean, nobody just gives that kind of stuff away, and it wasn't like the Nazis were paying you to work."
"No," David said. "But food wasn't the only thing we organized from the gas chambers. Prisoners like me, who'd worked in storerooms, knew how to hide the money and diamonds we found in the clothing." With a wry smile, he added, "Sometimes I wonder what other time in history a handful of diamonds was barely enough to purchase a single gun."
"Sounds like there was a lot of bribery going on," Hutch said, folding his arms across his chest. "And I bet the Nazis had a big hand in it."
"Of course," David agreed. "And those who survived the war had very comfortable nest eggs. But at that time, we needed all the corrupt Nazis we could find. I was relatively new, so I wasn't let in on much. Our leaders were afraid of too many people being involved, and then informing the SS. In fact, that kapo I was telling you about, Kaminski? Just a few weeks before the uprising, he was betrayed. That bastard Moll pulled him aside one day and had the rest of us locked in a storeroom." David extended his hand out like a pistol. "Bang! Bang! All of us thought we'd be next. But after a few minutes, the SS released us. We found Kaminski's body by the pyres later that day. He'd been shot in the back of the neck and in his eye."
"Did you find out who ratted on him?" Hutch asked, leaning against the wall in front of the bed.
Starsky eyed Hutch, wondering if he was thinking about Lionel Rigger. Their informant's untimely death had been similar to Kaminski's, and Starsky had never doubted his actions had contributed to the tragedy.
"No," David said. "But that didn't stop the uprising, such as it was. We lost over half of our number in that bloodbath; hundreds mowed down, without mercy, by machine gun fire. A few got lucky and killed a couple of SS and a kapo, plus the men working in Crematorium IV set it on fire. We considered the revolt a victory in that we were able to put one of those death factories out of business. But losing all of those men?" Dropping his head to his chest, David sighed. "Maybe it was good they died fighting the Nazis, but it was a terrible price to pay."
"I guess you got pulled into that, too?" Hutch asked Kendrick before taking a seat on the wide sill by the window.
Kendrick coughed slightly, clearing his throat. "Yes, and it was one of the worst days of my life. The sirens went off, and I could see a pillar of black smoke coming from one of the crematoriums. I had no idea what was going on, but by the time I got there, all I could see was dead bodies lying everywhere." Kendrick paused and stared vacantly at the floor, apparently lost in thought.
Starsky couldn't help but wonder if that horrid scene was replaying itself in the man's memory; and if Kendrick's description was triggering a bad recollection or two in Hutch's mind. His partner had undoubtedly witnessed an eyeful right after Starsky got shot. Not wanting to confirm any suspicions about what Hutch might be thinking, Starsky kept his attention focused on Kendrick.
"I couldn't help but think about David," Kendrick finally said, blinking his eyes a few times, "but I didn't know which building he was in. It wasn't until several days later, a lifetime almost, before Erick told me that David had survived. To this day, I'm not sure whether he did it to set my mind at ease, or to make me suffer a little longer, knowing that David was still stuck in that hell."
An unexpected muscle cramp shot up Starsky's side. He reached around to try and rub the offending ache, but the movement caused his chest tube to pinch. He grunted in pain, but before anyone could ask, he stuck his palm up and forced a smile. He wanted to hear this story, and he wasn't going to let the pain of a stupid tube jabbed between his ribs prevent that. "David, you said hundreds died," he said gingerly, trying not to clinch his teeth. "I bet you lost a few friends."
His cousin looked down at his lap. "I can't remember a lot of their names," he said, brushing something off of his pant leg. "Many times we'd never even ask each other that question. We'd just go around and call each other 'you.' But, yes, I lost people I considered friends that day; Moishe was one of those."
"What about…oh, what was his name?" Hutch clamped his eyes shut and snapped his middle finger and thumb softly. Before Starsky could offer a guess, Hutch announced, "Leon!"
David smiled. "He was actually one of the very few of us that survived until liberation." Surprisingly, he turned quiet. He seemed to be seeing something far off, memories that only he was privy to.
Kendrick leaned over and patted him on the arm. "Why don't you go ahead and tell them about that."
David looked at his friend and flashed him a ghost of a smile. "Well, after that summer," he said, "fewer and fewer people were brought to be gassed. We were eventually moved back into Block 13, but not before undergoing another selection. I guess the Nazis weren't satisfied that over half of us were killed in the revolt. This time, they took about two hundred, anyone who had a high number. I barely missed being selected." David absently ran a hand over his bared forearm, then stared at the old tattoo there. "My number was right below the last one who was allowed to live," he continued, rubbing a hand over the grisly reminder. "Out of those of us left, one group was sent to work in the last crematorium, the rest started dismantling the other three."
"Dismantling them? Why?" Hutch asked.
"Evidence," Kendrick said bitterly. "The Russians were coming and no one wanted them to find operational gas chambers when they arrived. The plan was to move all the ovens to another camp in Germany and continue the gassings."
"Man, what a bunch of sickos," Starsky grumbled, then realized what he'd just said. "I mean, not includin' you, Kendrick. You're one of the…uh, you know, good ones."
Kendrick grinned at him warmly. "Keine Sorge. Don't worry, I know what you mean. Many of us were very krank, 'sick', including the top brass. Germany was trying to fight the Allies, but there were no trains to help transport troops or supplies to the front. Hitler was still using them to ship Jews to the camps. He was so obsessed with killing every Jew he thought nothing of sacrificing his armies to achieve that goal."
"Unbelievable," Hutch muttered, leaning forward to brace both arms on his legs. He interlocked his long fingers together and fanned them out and back in a few times, an old habit he did when thinking deeply. "So, David, were you in Auschwitz when the Russians got there?" he asked, looking back up.
"No. About a week before they arrived, the camp was evacuated. But we Sonderkommando almost didn't make it out of there."
"Why? What happened?" asked Starsky, delicately trying to move his body against the pillows so he'd be more comfortable.
"That day, we were on our way to work, dismantling the crematoriums. Suddenly, the SS yelled, 'Sonderkommando, back to the barracks!' We knew right away what that meant—they were going to kill us. Once we got inside, they left a guard at the door. A short time later, he came inside and told everyone to stay put 'if we knew what was best for us', and then he left!" David threw both hands up in the air. "Well, we weren't dumkopfs. We rushed outside and mingled in with the other prisoners, because everyone was being ordered out of the camp. I, and many others, headed over to the storerooms. We grabbed coats, blankets, shoes, anything to keep us warm."
"The fear was almost universal," Kendrick added. "We had heard so many rumors. 'The Russians are only 30 kilometers away,' then, 'No, they're still days away.' One thing was for certain: no German soldier wanted to be there when they arrived." He shook his head repeatedly. "When the orders finally came to evacuate the camp, we were probably more anxious to leave than the prisoners were!"
"So how long was it before you finally saw each other again?" Starsky asked, still working on finding a comfortable position. If he moved to where he wanted, he wouldn't be able to hide the pain. Thankfully, bending one of his legs seemed to ease the pressure in his chest and he settled back against the pillows.
"You mean when we actually had a chance to speak?" Kendrick turned to David. "Not until sometime that spring, ja?"
David bit his lip, looking thoughtful. "Let's see," he said. "After we left Birkenau, they marched us back to Auschwitz. I remember a couple of SS walking around asking for any Sonderkommando. 'We have a good job for you,' they said." David shook his head in amazement. "Anyway, two days later, in the middle of the night, they started marching a big group of us west. Thousands of prisoners! Some were bundled up in blankets, others just had a thin jacket. It was snowing very hard, and the temperature…I don't know how cold it was, but the air froze my lungs when I breathed! We'd only gone a few kilometers when I heard the first shot."
David wrapped his arms around himself, as if he were back on that icy road. Interestingly, Kendrick also chose that moment to pull his sweater tighter around himself. Starsky could certainly empathize with them. He'd experienced enough New York winters to know what frigid air felt like. Several moments later, David sat up a little straighter and relaxed his arms.
"After that," he continued, "you could hear the rifles firing every few minutes. The Nazis were shooting anyone who fell down or couldn't keep up the fast pace. One time, to keep myself going, I started counting the shots. I got to fifty, then counted to a hundred. And this went on for three straight days. The first night, we slept in a barn; only for a couple of hours. The next evening, we slept out in the middle of a soccer field. I can't tell you how many people froze to the ground overnight and were dead by dawn. Finally, we made it to Gleiwitz. They loaded us in open coal cars and off we went."
Starsky had a hard time understanding the Nazi's sudden change of plans. "Oh God," he moaned, as the realization hit. "You weren't in boxcars? Just how long were you on that train without any shelter?"
"Four, maybe five days. I thought the other rides had been bad, but this one was the worst. I don't think it ever stopped snowing. Sometimes, when we'd stop and wait for other trains to go by, we could scrape the snow off of one another. That was our drinking water. Once…" David paused as a flash of pain passed across his face. "We managed to stop right under a pedestrian bridge. It was early morning and a few people were walking across it; on their way to work, I assume. One of them took out a loaf of bread, broke off a small piece and threw it into our car. These men, my fellow Jews… suddenly, they were like a pack of wolves fighting over a scrap of meat. I pushed my way to a corner, trying to get out of the way. I watched as the people on the bridge kept tossing bread, one tiny chunk at a time. They were laughing and pointing at us. I think that was when I realized how little the world cared about us."
"I saw something similar," Kendrick sadly admitted. "And those people weren't even soldiers or SS. They were Czech women."
Hutch dipped his eyes as he shook his head in disgust. Combing his hair back with his hand, he said, "Kendrick, I'm guessing you left Auschwitz guarding a transport like David's."
"Yes," he answered. "I might even have been on that same train, because we both ended up in Mauthausen, a concentration camp in Austria. About two days after I arrived, I spotted David heading out on a work detail. Unfortunately, I couldn't leave my station and try to catch his attention. Later, I tried to look up his name, but by that time, many of the camps had stopped registering new prisoners. There were so many arriving, it was too time consuming to write the prisoners' information down; we'd just do a head count and put them to work."
"And I wasn't there for very long," David cut in. "About three weeks later, I was shipped off again, to Ebensee."
"After that first time I saw him, a week went by, then another, and another," Kendrick recounted. "But as hard as I tried, I never saw David again in camp. Even though there were thousands of prisoners there, all I could think was that he'd died. I felt so worthless," he said, sounding heartbroken. "I wanted to accomplish one good thing—one—so I could die knowing I wasn't a bad man. But when you have so much blood on your hands that you can't wash it off…" He rubbed both hands as if trying to remove the taint. "You've heard that saying, 'I'm at the end of my rope?' That's how I felt. I just wanted the Russians or the Americans to hurry up and put an end to my suffering."
"Those last months before liberation were very difficult," David added, "for both of us. Until I got out of Auschwitz, I didn't realize what a killing factory it was. These other camps that I went to, many of them had crematoriums, but not gas chambers. Not like Birkenau. If the Germans wanted you to die, they just worked you to death." David stopped to clear his throat. "At least, when I left Auschwitz, I was healthier than most, but by the time I got to Ebensee, I'd lost a lot of weight. And the work; for 12, 14 hours a day they made us dig out these large tunnels in the hills. I wasn't sure what they were for. Some prisoners said it was so the Germans could hide their big rockets from the Allies. But every day, at least a hundred, probably two hundred of us died. We were hardly ever fed: a half liter of ersatz coffee in the morning; about that much soup for lunch, if you could call it that. Just some dirty water with a few potato peels. And then for dinner, a piece of bread about as big as your fist."
"It's a wonder how anyone could survive on rations like that," said Starsky. He felt guilty for the times he'd thought the hospital was trying to starve him when they refused to let him have a midnight snack.
"Well, like I said, those were hard times," David answered. "After being in Ebsensee for over a month, some of us were sent to Dachau. Why, I don't know. By then, we were more dead than alive. I don't really remember too much after that." David looked at both Starsky and Hutch. "I mean, each day just merged into the next. I couldn't even tell you if we still got food or not; I didn't have enough strength to leave my barracks and find out. Lucky for me, there hadn't been any roll calls for a few days; otherwise I would've been shot. Other prisoners would return to their bunks at night, the ones who could still get around, and share the rumors going around. Most of the time, the news sounded good, but I was too sick and tired to care."
David paused and glanced out of the window. "I spent a lot of time thinking about Papa. Sometimes, I would close my eyes and I could hear him talking to me. I'd also think about Hannah, and wish to God I could hear her say anything…" David shook his head. "That was it. I just remember staring at sunlight coming in through an open doorway. Everything seemed to be going in slow motion; people, noises. I felt like I could just float away. Then, the next thing I knew, I was lying on a bed with a soft mattress and pillow. A real bed!"
"In a hospital?" Hutch guessed.
Nodding, David said, "A makeshift one. At first, I didn't know where I was. There were several other patients there, prisoners, like me, but the place was too nice to be the inside of a barrack. It had a cement floor and paneled walls. Later, I found out the Americans had converted the SS quarters into hospital wards for the really sick, or anyone they felt couldn't be transferred somewhere else."
"Was the war over?" Starsky wondered aloud. "I mean, in Europe?"
"Well, when I first woke up, I had no idea what day it was. From listening to others talking around me, I learned that the Americans had liberated Dachau on April the 29th. If I hadn't been taken there, I certainly would've died. Ebensee wasn't liberated until May 6th."
"Boy," Hutch muttered. "I can't say whether you survived because of sheer luck, fate or just an amazing will to survive. But how in the world did you and Kendrick meet up again?"
David smiled warmly and glanced over at Kendrick. "I think it's your turn now," he said.
Kendrick returned his friend's smile and pulled at the hem on his sweater, straightening it out. "I don't think my story is quite as gripping as David's, but like his, I think mine was destined by fate. About the time my old camp was being taken over by the Americans, I was leading a large group of prisoners out of Austria, back into Germany. Our column was attacked by fighter planes, and it was every man for himself. I ended up running into the woods and I didn't stop for miles. I'd had it with fighting and killing. All I wanted was to surrender to the first GI Joe I could find. That took three more days of walking towards the northwest, as best as I could calculate direction, and hiding from every German patrol I came across. But I finally found a real American soldier; a private at that!"
At that moment, a nurse came in holding a clipboard under her arm. "My, you boys must be having a very interesting conversation. You've all been here since this morning," she said, pulling a thermometer from one of her pockets. She held it up and began to shake the thin glass tube.
"I hope you know where that thing's been before you go sticking it in my mouth, Gladys," Starsky quipped.
"Now, hon, don't you know you're talking to a professional?" she replied, sticking the glass rod into his mouth. Waiting for the mercury to rise, Gladys began to pat her other pockets. Pulling out a second thermometer, she held it up and started to examine it. "Oh my," she said, her face growing slack in apparent shock, "Now which one did I just use next door, to take a rectal?"
Starsky saw her looking at the thermometer in his mouth and immediately spit it out. "You didn't!" he yelped.
Gladys held her mortified expression for a few more seconds, then calmly picked up the instrument from Starsky's chest. Waving it as a warning, she announced, "And the next time you play a prank on one of my candy stripers, be prepared for an unscheduled enema. Do we have an understanding, Mr. Starsky?"
Starsky inched down in his bed. "Sure, anything you say, Gladys," he said, feeling his face flush.
Sporting a big smile, Gladys pocketed the thermometers and headed out the door. "Oh, and your dinner will be here shortly," she said, glancing back over her shoulder.
"What was that all about?" Hutch peered at his partner. "Starsky," he scolded, "just what kind of joke did you play?"
"Geez, Hutch. That was almost three days ago!" Starsky pulled the bed covers up a little higher. Hoping to shift attention away from himself, he eyed Kendrick. "That must've been scary, surrendering like that by yourself."
"Well, yes…a little," Kendrick said. "Actually, I didn't realize just how close I came to getting myself killed. It wasn't until I was sent to Dachau, a prisoner myself, that I learned about the SS guards that had been shot after they surrendered. When the American liberators arrived there, they hadn't seen a concentration camp before." He paused for a moment, obviously remembering those turbulent times with a faraway look in his eyes. "Emotions, I think, outweighed military rules of conduct," he concluded simply.
Starsky gave an involuntary shudder at the implication. Weren't they, the Americans, supposed to be the good guys?
As if sensing his partner's unease, Hutch hurriedly pitched the next question. "How long were you held in Dachau? I mean, didn't the Allies consider any member of the SS a war criminal?"
"You're correct," Kendrick remarked. "Since the SS ran the concentration camps, the Allies considered them accomplices in the Nazi's plan. So every staff member, regardless of what kind of work they did, was automatically charged for war crimes."
"So you got thrown in jail?" asked Starsky.
Kendrick shook his head. "Not exactly. But the soldiers took our boots and most of our clothing and gave those to the camp survivors. Many times, the Jews would walk by our barbed wire compound and spit or try to piss on us. I can't say that we didn't deserve it, but things like that were tolerated by the Americans." He glanced nervously around the room, perhaps expecting someone to berate him. When nothing was said, he continued. "Most of us were held in Dachau about three months, then released. At Nuremburg, about two dozen high ranking SS were put on trial. Many of them were either colonels or lieutenant colonels of the Einsatzgruppen. If I remember correctly, more than a dozen were sentenced to death, but only four actually hanged. The rest got prison sentences. Yet when the Cold War started, and the United States needed Germany as an ally against Russia, nearly all who were still alive were released from prison."
"Man," Starsky moaned. "Talk about getting away with murder." He gave himself a hasty mental slap and quickly locked apologetic eyes on Kendrick. Receiving a small nod and smile in return, Starsky felt comfortable that Kendrick had understood.
"Those trials served little purpose except, perhaps, to open people's eyes," David said, rejoining the conversation. "For those of us who survived, we had to concentrate on other things. We had to start rebuilding our lives. Of course, we wanted revenge, to see the guilty punished for murdering millions. I'd have settled for justice for the death of just one…"
Starsky had little doubt who that person was. "Hannah," he said, finally.
Clasping his hands together, David slightly dipped his head. "Kendrick actually found out Hannah's fate before I did. I should let him start talking about that day."
All eyes fell on Kendrick. He acknowledged David with a slight nod and smile. "Well," he began, "I'd been a prisoner in Dachau for about a week when…."
TBC - Tommorrow I'll post the last two chapters