I can feel the lactic acid burning in my calf muscles but I ignore the pain and kept cycling. With each push, with each burst of pain, I'm carried further and further away from the village which I have grown to loath. I'm a city girl at heart, from Berlin. When Mutter and I returned from Auschwitz I thought we were going to stay there but it's 1944 and the aid raids have gotten really heavy so we moved to Bollersen in Lower Saxony, where my aunt lives. It's a dreary place and I don't get on with the locals and their weird ways. It's quite odd, as everything seems to be building up to a terrible crescendo. The Americans and British invaded France two months ago, which fills me with a sense of dread. That was June and it's August now, nearing the end of the month. It's back to school in a few days and I sometimes I wonder if in the future there'll be a school to go to. I stop myself. Sometimes I scare myself by thinking the most defeatist thoughts. Like how Germany might not win the war after all… But then I stop and remind myself that with our Fuhrer we cannot lose. "Deutschland vor allem," I whisper the words now, over and over, in case I forget. Germany above all, Germany above all. There was a time when I never had to remind myself that Germany was the better nation. But that was before Bruno disappeared.
Bruno. My little brother. I think about him now, as I peddle even harder up a small inline. His innocent blue eyes and the messy black hair... All his annoying little habits that I miss more than words can say. My little brother who disappeared without a trace. Or did he? They say soldiers found his clothes in a pile, next to that fence. Only one explanation surfaces in my mind. An explanation that I can never tell anyone because it's too horrific for even me to consider, let alone Mutter. The idea that Bruno, small, innocent, naïve, Bruno, swapped his clothes for that grubby stripped uniform and climbed into hell itself. It's true that I don't know exactly what went on in that camp, but I'm not stupid. I know the conditions weren't great. Pavel always looked so dirty and sad. But then again they're Jews aren't they? They made Germany lose the Great War and they're lazy and work-shy. So it goes without saying that they should be made to work for the good of Germany. If Bruno walked into that camp, surely someone must have seen him? Why didn't they say something?
I can feel tears pricking at my eyes. I'm not sentimental, not usually, but somehow I always cry when I think of Bruno. And how if he is dead or even just trapped in a place full of Jews it must be their fault. Who else would be cruel enough to imprison a boy? I know Vater thinks this too. I heard him murmuring under his breath, shortly before I left Auschwitz. I push the thought from my head but as much as I try not to think of my brother his boyish smile is never far from my thoughts.
I've been cycling for a mere 20 minutes now but it seems much longer. It always does when one is alone with ones thoughts. I'm nearing a cluster of trees which should provide some protection against the sun's heat. Another 10 minutes passes in a blur and before long I have exited what turned out to be a forest. It's funny, cycling blissfully in the deep German countryside, alone. One could almost feel carefree. Well as close to carefree as I'm likely to get.
That's odd… far away, in the distance, I can see a fence. A shiver runs through me. I recognise that fence. I figure I must be imagining things because the last fence I saw like that was in Poland… in the east. I stop for a moment and take a sip of water from my bottle, as if that will cure my hallucination. As if what I am seeing in merely a mirage. Still, despite this, I cycle closer. It becomes quite clear that this is indeed a fence like the one at Auschwitz. The barbed wire, twisting and turning at the top. The quiet hum of a deadly electric current filling the air. I dismount and advance towards it before gulping and wrinkling my nose. There's a smell I recognise… combined with something much worse. I can't place a finger on it. All I know is that I'm repulsed. Are there Jews here? That doesn't make sense. All the Jews were deported to the East; dumped in the Ostland, I heard. Maybe it's just traitors or parents who complain about their children's HJ duties. Probably. If that's the case I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for the smell. I frown, and wage an internal battle in an attempt to convince myself that I'm right.
I reach out my hand and hold it a mere cm away from the fence. I can feel my hairs stand up on end. There's no doubting that this fence is deadly. Still, I'm both curious and repelled so I haul my bike up and walk along the edge of the fence until another shape comes into view. Firstly it's a dot but then as I move closer it morphs onto what may have been a human being. It's standing, almost motionless, staring out through the fence. The thing that scares me most is that I can't tell if it's a boy or girl. It wears a long, striped blue and white dress-like sack. Feet are grubby and unprotected. The head has been shaved and they're so thin their body has no figure whatsoever. There's just skin and bones. I'm scared. My first instinct is to run, to flee. But I can't help but be curious.
"H-Hallo," I say, surprised I can speak at all.
The person, if you can call it a person because it looks more like a skeleton, glances at me. "Hallo,"
It's then I realise that it's a girl.
"I'm Gretel," I say, hoping to prompt a conversation or at least a response. "What's your name?"
She doesn't say anything but her confused expression turns to anger and she turns away, blanking me. I'm a little hurt at that but it's not like I can do anything. The place is giving me the creeps so I turn around and pick up the bike.
"I don't think I have a name anymore," The words are a barely audible whisper which I can hardly hear over the sound of the wind. "They took it from me, just like they took everything else from me,"
Her accent's straight out of Berlin. She's German…
"Of course you have a name," I whisper back.
A million emotions boil inside of me as the reality hits me in the face. This girl! She must be a Jew so she's not German after all ... Jews are supposed to be evil, supposed to ruin everything. But this girl here, she's not like that. She seems so helpless…. And why is her hair shaved? Bruno once had his hair shaved but that was only because he got nits and he's a boy. I had to use a special, but rather horrid shampoo. Girls don't have their hair shaved, especially not girls my age.
"I did, once," says the girl. "My parents called me Anna,"
"Pleased to meet you, Anna,"
She shakes her head and runs a hand over the back of her skull. For a moment I think she is going to cry but she just looks really, really angry.
Suddenly I ask the question that's been preying on my mind for some time. "Are you a Jew?" I ask finally.
"It depends," Anna says coldly. "I have never practiced any religion but nowadays being Jewish seems to be a collective term for anyone the Nazis don't like and want to kill,"
"Kill," the word echoes in my head. Does Vater want to kill people like Anna? Surely not. He's a servant of his country, intent on ridding the world of the scum of the Earth… ridding? Doesn't that mean kill? I remember one time when Bruno and I were having a lesson with Herr and Bruno asked whether you could find a nice Jew, Herr had said you'd be the best explorer ever. Maybe Anna is the exception…
"I don't understand…" I say slowly. "If you're Jewish why aren't you in the Ostland? Why weren't you deported?"
Anna's eyes widen "Sehr unwissendes!" She snaps. So ignorant. "I was deported, but now I'm back again,"
"I don't understand…"
"You Nazis never do,"
The words sting and I don't know why. Surely being a Nazi is a good thing? I mean it means being a patriot, loyal to the Vaterland, and the Fuhrer… It means being a true German, doesn't it? My whole life has revolved around this principle. Yet now, looking at this girl, who has been stripped of her dignity, I don't know. The Nazis, us, me, Germany has done this and I don't understand why. I've never really seen a Jew up close before. In Berlin they were poor and dirty. In Auschwitz Pavel was miserable and dirty… and who made them like that? They weren't always like that, a rational part of my brain argues. The Nazis, father, us, Germany made them like that. I'm thinking of Auschwitz, of the suffering I knew existed but never saw. I'm thinking of Lieutenant Kotler, and his violent outbursts, the way he looked at Pavel… like he was nothing but a measly worm, or even less than that…
I'm thinking of the striped pyjamas, as I have so often in recent times. I know they're not pyjamas, but that's how Bruno described them, and it's stuck in my mind. They haunt me now, though, covering the feeble body of the girl in front of me. So close I could touch them. I always used to think Bruno was naïve, innocent. Once when we walked past a group of Jews in Berlin, he must have been about eight, and he pointed at them and said (I remember his exact words, clear as anything) "Those people are so sad, mightn't we cheer them up? They look hungry as well…" I'd told him straight, of course, that they were Jews, Untermenschen (a word I'd only recently learnt) and that they deserved everything that came to them and more, that they had ruined Germany, that they were greedy ….. and Bruno had looked at me with a frown and said they were no different to him, and probably less of a Hopeless Case than me. Maybe Bruno wasn't so innocent… maybe he was just human.
All this processing whirring in my brain leads me to a final conclusion. I speak the words as they file orderly into my brain, the memory of my little brother hanging heavily over each one.
"I'm not a Nazi, and I don't want to be,"