Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Wages and the Gift

Auschwitz, Germany, 1944

The thought came again, like the relentless washing of waves crashing against a rocky beach, flooding my brain and freezing my fingers.
God hates me.
My heart was pounding. I looked up into Major Braun's cold scowl.
"What's wrong with you, Kohn?" he barked. "Pull that --------- lever!"
I could see the suspicion in his eyes. They had no use for men who snapped. I shoved my mind away and swallowed hard as I pulled the lever down, as fast as I could, slamming it against the stone wall.
The familiar hissing sound filled the room as gas rushed into the room next to us. I could hear gasping cries as the tightly packed prisoners, mostly women and children who had been told they were to take a shower, succumbed to the deadly gas. Then all sounds ceased, except the hissing of the gas through the vents.
"Shut it off," said Major Braun.
I obeyed the order mechanically, pushing the lever back up. My jaw was clenched so tightly that it hurt.
A few moments passed, then men were sent to clear the room for the next batch. Over 150 bodies, packed in as tightly as possible. Mothers, babies, sisters, brothers.
God hates me. I shook my head, but the thoughts would not go away this time. I didn't cause their deaths! I was just obeying orders.
I pulled the lever.

Then, like a ghost from my childhood, I heard my mother's voice.
"I don't care if it wasn't your idea! You helped, so you are responsible." I was twelve. My older brother suggested throwing a rock through the schoolmaster's window. I did. When my mother found out, she scolded, and then told me, "Now you go over there and pay him for the broken window. Then come back here and ask God's forgiveness. You're sorry, I know. Go make it right."
My hand dropped from the lever. I couldn't make it right. Even if I refused to obey my orders, it would not save a single life.
God hates me.The next group of prisoners was being loaded into the shower room. The Major told me to get ready.
I could see myself as if from above the compound, sitting at the controls staring at the lever, surrounded by gray concrete and drab green uniforms.
My hands were shaking. I clenched them at my sides.
I could pull the lever again. 150 more lives. Dead in that shower room, gas hissing from the vents.
God hates me.I could refuse. It was not to late to stand up and walk away. It would mean death. The crack of a gun. Blood spreading over my uniform, my body limp on the ground. There was relief in the thought.
"...then ask for God's forgiveness. And the next time..."
My head dropped into my hands. It was far too late, but I had to try.
"God, if you can forgive me," I stammered through shaking lips, "I beg your forgiveness. I have nothing to give you, but..." My voice trailed off and a feeling of grief filled me. My life was over. I could give Him nothing but my death. "Please forgive me," I repeated.
I took a deep breath. A feeling I barely remembered washed over me.
A feeling of lightness. I felt as if I could dance on the wind.
"Are you listening to me, Caro?" Major Braun's voice was harsh and strident. "I said pull that lever!"
I had strength, I had courage I didn't understand. I stood up and faced the Major.
"No," I said. "I won't do it."
My world exploded, the Major yelling, the other soldiers questioning, another officer explaining. My detachment surprised me. I didn't care what they said.
"They are subhuman. They need to be removed for the greater good!"
"This is murder," I responded. "I won't do it anymore."
"Then we'll put you in there with them," the Major shouted.
I think he expected me to beg for mercy, but I didn't falter. Two soldiers grabbed me and pushed me out of the room, down the hall, and into the shower room.
The door slammed shut with a clang. I was pressed in with a mass of bony, starved bodies. Their dull, sunken eyes regarded me emptily.
I helped do this.
For me, the thought of death was an escape. Not from the guilt. For some reason I no longer felt guilty, just inexpressibly sad. Escape from a life with what I'd helped do always in my head. I envied these people for their innocence.
The hiss was louder in this room than the other. As the strange smell filled the air there were some cries of surprise, of fear. Then silence as the air grew black.
I couldn't breathe. I couldn't stand. I fell to the concrete floor with the others.
As the swirling darkness gathered around me, for the last time the thought came.
God loves me.

~by Sara-Anne Leavitt
September, 2011