A/N: And here we are! Thanks for indulging me in my little one-shot!
Chapter 4- Safe!
If I remember the day I met the Bear Jew for the first time, I also remember the last with equal clarity. It was the height of summer when it felt as though Mother Nature herself breathed hellfire down on us just as the Allies did. No propaganda film no matter how well made could make me believe that we were anything but dead men and women. The Allies were at our gates and ready to kick the door in and the town was in chaos.
I didn't know if Donny ever survived his escape, but he got his wish of rebellion when the Jews in the ghetto revolted as soon as they recognized that their oppressors were fleeing in droves and leaving the perimeter unguarded. For the most part I was safe from their wrath because Donny's good Samaritan associate Eliot made it known in the community that I was a friend of his people by virtue of helping the American soldier among others, but I could not count on his charity when the Allied soldiers arrived because he had no influence with them. It seemed his good deed had only served to prolong my demise.
Complicating matters was the way we had been abandoned by our leaders when defeat had become undeniable. The Nazi commanders retreated toward Berlin to regroup, or so we were told, while low level foot soldiers and officers were ordered to remain behind to protect what few citizens remained and slow the progress of the invasion. Victory was never spoken of or expected as an outcome and the implicit understanding we were left with was to die well for the motherland. I never embraced the Nazi party's policies, but I obeyed for my own reasons. It was my professional duty to see to the sick and dying until the end. It was a commitment that extended to all- Jew and Nazi, American or German and it was a service I knew I would die performing even as I was drug away from the bedside of a young soldier at the clinic and marched to the edge of the town by a group of rouge Jewish boys.
"Faster!" One shouted as he jabbed me in the back with a sharpened stick. "Do not be so slow to face your death!"
I plodded along the street with my hands above my head and squinting in the hot sun. The clinic had been taken over by the Nazi party some months ago and as a condition of employment, all had to wear uniforms to make the wounded soldiers feel as if they were receiving the best care from their fellow countrymen- a show of solidarity of sorts- and now I was marked for all to see even though I did not belong with the 6 others who were also being paraded towards the woods. I contemplated demanding the boys find Eliot and speak with him, but it would look like cowardice on my part and as the sweat began to run down my face, I had to ask myself if this was not perhaps the most merciful end. I was tired, frustrated, and saddened by the fighting and suffering. To die would not bring peace to my country or to the world, but it would to me and maybe that was the best I could ever hope for.
When we reached the edge of the woods, we were forced to kneel facing a low stone wall that marked the outer limit of the town. I found out the hard way that we were not permitted to look to the trees when the boy who was guarding me moved to use the sharp end of his homemade weapon to push my face back toward the wall and ended up cutting a deep scratch into my cheek. It stung and burned, but I dared not reach for it to prevent the blood from running down my face.
It was some time before we heard the rustling of leaves and the deeply accented voice of an American followed by a much lower pitched translation from another man in German. "Afternoon." He greeted politely. "Name's Aldo Raine and these here are my associates." It was unclear who he was referring to since we could not turn to look, but either it did not occur to him or he didn't care and he went on. "There's a bunch a Tommies and Canuk folk a ways back, but they sent us on ahead to tell y'all that they'll be along shortly to burn your whole town down free of charge. In the meantime, we have our own part to do. Now, y'all might have heard that we go 'round scalpin' innocent Germans and I'm here to tell y'all that ain't true 'cause there is no such thing as an innocent German." The collective laughter of a few men filled the air and their leader let it die down before he continued. "But we simply ain't got the time to deal with every single goddamn kraut we run across, that's why we're only interested in Nazi soldiers and officers." He paused perhaps to do something or just to let the tension rise, I couldn't be sure, but I didn't chance another glance. "Looks to me like y'all are Nazis, so today's your day to die. Sergeant Donowitz," he yelled back towards the woods, "come on down and help introduce these poor sons a bitches to their maker."
"Gimme a minute!" A rough voice called back.
The men began laughing again and Raine chuckled along with them. "Well, I guess now we all know the answer to the conundrum of does a bear shit in the woods."
At the mention of the word, panicked whispers traveled up and down the line of "Bear Jew!" like a spark igniting a wick. Like a frightened animal, a young officer jumped to his feet and bolted off toward the town, apparently content with either making it or dying and he was shot dead before he made his second step. His body fell heavily to the ground a few feet away from me and as the others tried not to scream or cry in terror at their own inevitable demise, one of the men kneeled down and cut off the scalp of the dead soldier.
"Nice job, Hirschberg." Raine commended, removing a small amount of what I assumed to be tobacco from a box and snorting it. "How many you still owe me?"
"47, Sir." The man responded, dangling the freshly separated patch of skin by the strands of dark hair.
"You're fallin' behind, son. Wicki here's got more than you and he spends all his time yammerin' kraut for us." He snapped the box shut and reminded, "I want my scalps." There was more rustling leaves and it seemed to lift the spirits of the men. "Now watch and see how it's done."
I felt my breath catch in my throat and I closed my eyes. Behind us, a man slowly paced back and forth, the hollow sound of wood tapping against his boot as he walked echoed as loudly as gunshots. Finally, he paused and I felt sick because his large shadow was cast directly over me. I felt a light tap on my lower back from his club and he roughly ordered, "Get up."
The men laughed and whistled at my approaching death as I slowly complied. Raine snickered heartily and commented, "That's mighty gentlemanly of you, Donowitz. Ladies first."
He seemed to ignore them and in a suspicious tone he commanded, "Turn around." I kept my hands over my head and cautiously turned to face him, but I kept my eyes lowered and I took note of the many German dog tags that hung around his neck and just past his leg, a darkly stained bat that read "Louisville." He reached up to lift my chin and force me to look at him and when I did, I couldn't bear the disappointment and disgust swirling in very familiar dark eyes. "He musta been a hell of a dancer to make ya sell out." He bitterly accused. "I thought I told ya to stay outta trouble."
"I did." I quietly answered, relieved that he had survived, but frightened that I might not. "I am not a Nazi, you know that."
He scoffed sarcastically. "Ya sure as hell look like one, doll."
"I had to wear this uniform to do my job." I explained. "To avoid suspicion, but I no more wanted to than I wanted to go to the dance. I did what I had to do, and I understand if you do as well. I only ask that you be as merciful to me as I was to you." I humbly requested. It was inconceivable to me that the man I tended to had become the feared Bear Jew and I wondered if any of the rumors of his brutality were true, but I had to assume that he did not gather his stolen dog tags by asking for them politely.
"Hey, Donny." One the men called impatiently. "Are you going to kiss her or kill her?"
"Yeah!" Another chimed in. "You trying to get a date or what?"
The translator smiled and suggested, "If you want to get a German woman, offer her your bratwurst." The men erupted into fits of laughter at his lewd joke, but I looked away in disgust.
Raine piped up again in a serious tone that reinforced his position of authority. "It ain't polite to keep ladies waitin', Donowitz, and we ain't got the time to terry and watch you sharpen your Romeo skills." He warned in a low tone. "Get on with the business that's to be gotten to."
He looked down at me and it was clear that he was torn between his duty and a sense of justice. I simultaneously represented the cruelty he fought against and he everything he despised as well as the compassion and mercy that saved him from dying alone in the street in spite of his nationality and heritage. "Swear to me," he growled in a low voice, "that ya ain't no Nazi. Swear that you'd burn that stinkin' uniform if ya could and that ya still don't want nothin' to do with killin' Jews and I'll let ya live."
"I swear to you." I vowed, looking him directly in the eye, grateful for his humanity and his ability to overlook his obligation to his comrades to spare my life just as I did his.
He gave me a tight nod as his nostrils flared. "God so help me, lady, if I find out you lied, I'll come back and bash ya teeth in myself. Hear me?" I quickly nodded and he gave me a small shove toward the man who made the rude joke. "Wicki, keep an eye on her while we send the rest a' these pork eatin' bastards to their graves."
Raine, an older looking man with an obvious scar around his neck, smirked and shook his head as he watched me do as I was told and stand by the tall translator. "So Donny walks the dame. That never happens." His eyes twinkled as he added, "Now there's got to be a real good story as to why and I look forward to hearin' all about it. But if you'll excuse me, I have to go and viciously murder your countrymen."
Aldo Raine was a man of his word. I looked away from the gruesome scene of spraying blood and brutality the men inflicted on my fellow citizens, guilty that I was held apart and I knew they questioned me with their dying eyes. I could block out the sight, but I could not become deaf to the sound of wood splitting skull and the agonized screams of the dying as their scalps were removed with blunt knives.
When it was all over, Donny and Raine rejoined me and my guard. Donny's body was slick with sweat and the blood of the dead as he lightly panted and rested his bat against his bulging shoulder, leaving behind a smear of blood on his skin. "So," Raine said cheerfully, "were we saving the best for last?"
"Nah." Donny replied, looking to me to perhaps judge if his actions in any way sickened me. In fact they did because it was in such stark contrast to the man who lived in my home for a week. He was never exactly polite, but he was no monster either. "She was the one that saved my ass while I was stuck here awhile back."
Raines squinted down on me as though he were deep in contemplation. "Now, we don't normally make exceptions, but if he says ya rendered him some much needed aid, well then I'm inclined to just take him at his word. Mighty risky to do what ya did and as he is my best man and second in command, if he wants to let ya go, I'll not say otherwise."
Donny gave him a small nod of gratitude for the favor, but still seemed unsettled. "Could we maybe not…" he paused awkwardly, "ya know…" he gestured vaguely to his forehead and summed, "she really ain't like that."
His superior seemed a little put out for the additional stipulation, but consented before turning to me to place his hands on his hips. "Alright, but everyone's gonna wanna know why you got away, and ya can't very well tell them it was because ya saved a Yankee Jew, or a Bear Jew, now can you?" I shook my head no and he continued. "And ya can't say it was on account of your being a skirt either. 'Cause well, that just sets bad precedent for us. Every dame from here clear to Moscow will think that they can get away with consortin' with Nazis just 'cause they have a nice honey pot." The men again sniggered at the coarse slang. "An' we can't have that. So here's what you're gonna do. You're gonna go to the nearest house and steal some clothes and you're gonna run away. Ya can't come back here 'cause your neighbors might ask questions and it's all gonna be gone in a day or two anyway. People think the Canuks are peaceable people, but you know where they live, don't ya?"
"Canada." I mumbled.
"Yep." He assented. "A land with nothin' but snow and bears and you know that they are stone cold sons a bitches to live in a climate like that. Bein' as such, they're especially fond of fire so imagine what they will do to you if they find you wearing that uniform. Now you'd best get along." He motioned for me to shoo and turned back to his men.
I looked back to Donny and sincerely said, "Thank you. You saved my life."
He hung his head and stared at the grass under his boots. "Don't get too soggy on me. It was only fair I suppose. Now we're even." He was surprisingly modest considering he had just bludgeoned people to death only moments before.
"So after I run away, should I never speak of you again?" I asked curiously.
He chuckled and lowered his bat. "Don't matter, I guess. Nobody will believe ya nohow. Nobody comes face to face with the Bear Jew and lives, remember? Anyhow, you'd better go. The Allies are only a few miles from here." He pointed with his bloody bat to the West to indicate the direction from which they approached. I turned to head back to the town and he called after me, "Hey! Remember, if you lied, I'll come back and bash your pretty head in!" His tone was more melancholic than menacing, but I didn't doubt for a minute that he wasn't firm in his convictions.
I never looked back and I never met the Bear Jew again. I did as Raine suggested and fled to the home of friends in the occupied territory and eventually made my way to France where I settled after the war, but I did always wonder what became of him. I never heard of his demise, which the Nazis would have triumphantly proclaimed had it happened, so I choose to believe that he eventually saw the end of the war and returned to his home in Boston to work on the shipping docks and play his baseball. He was no doubt a monster to many, but he saved my life when he had no official obligation to and that is how I choose to remember the Bear Jew- ferocious yet protective of those who had a claim to his mercy.