The Grand Circus of Ideas
Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
(Excerpt: pp. 86-106)
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Jerusalem, Winter 2009
A December afternoon, a low sun peeking through the slats of the blind separating the room from the porch. The woman’s face is bent over a shabby canvas suitcase on the floor of the closet. Her hands are white and delicate. Old. Slowly she takes folded items of clothing out of the suitcase, one by one. When the clock chimes three, she stops what she’s doing, straightens her back, pulls a chair away from the dining table, sits down, sighs, and stares at the suitcase. ‘A little hungry,’ she thinks. But whatever it is that she is hoping to meet under the pile of clothing dulls her hunger. She bends down to the bottom of the closet again, removes a pile of folded garments with an effort, and drops them at her side. At the bottom of the suitcase some kind of gray garment, a patchwork of pieces of old fur, is revealed. She picks up the bundle of rags and is overcome by giddiness. For a moment she goes on sitting on the chair until she can focus her eyes. The bundle is still lying on her lap. She fingers the scraps of fur and caresses the sateen lining. Abruptly she stands up and begins carefully spreading the strange garment out on the dining table. A wintry sunbeam steals into the room and sheds a stripe of harsh light on shabby strips of faded fur and a few crude stitches of black thread. Her eyes rest lovingly on the garment and a strong smell of naphthalene mingles with the feeling of hunger that sends her to the little kitchen.
She comes back to the room from the kitchen and sets a bowl of soup on the garment, as if it were a tablecloth. She sits down and starts pouring measured spoonfuls of the steaming liquid into her mouth. She studies the thing spread out on the table and consoles herself with the soup.
It’s a kind of garment, in fact, a fancy-dress costume, the costume of an elephant. It has evidently seen better days than these and it has evidently undergone many trials and tribulations. The pieces are sewn together in an ill-matched patchwork. Strips appear to have been borrowed from other garments in order to enlarge the costume. Only the head is in its original state. From the piece of fur intended to cover the forehead a swollen, fleshy tube of cloth protrudes. On its tip is a little cloud of cotton-wool that has escaped from between the stitches. She wraps the tube slowly round the bowl of soup, until it looks like a snake coiled up to warm itself, she leans her elbows on it and goes on eating, lost in thought.
When the clock chimes she wakes from her doze. Now she gets up to put the bowl in the sink, and goes to stand in front of the mirror. As she looks at her reflection, she takes off her clothes and shoes and stockings. Then she carefully picks up the rags of the elephant and puts them on her old flesh.
The mirror reflects an exposed bit of her stomach between the wisps of fur. For a moment she wonders if she should wait to patch the hole, and then she straightens her head scarf, covers her face with the elephant’s face, turns to the door and steps warily into the street.
A startling figure walks down the Jerusalem street in the pouring rain. It is clothed in rags in which the sharp-eyed can recognize the contours of an elephant.
An old woman of about eighty, her nakedness encased in a fur garment, takes slow, measured steps on the pavement. The passersby slow down and stare in perplexity, and she sends them a civil smile which is held back and imprisoned in the fur.
She walks until she reaches the entrance to a café. Carefully she pushes the elephant head backwards, and steps inside. The pure eyes of a child illuminate her face, her old age. She examines the tables in the empty room. The café is deserted. For the fraction of a second her eyes rest on the wall. Photographs of the owner of the café with various celebrities. Afterwards she sits down at a table next to the window overlooking the street.
The rain comes down harder, making a noise as it beats against the tin sign announcing ‘Café’ - Spinoza 7. The people outside contract their necks until their faces are protected from the rain in the depths of their coats. The more organized among them open umbrellas which spring into the air like gliding crows.
The café owner emerges from a back room.
‘How can I help you?’
‘If possible,’ replies the old lady, ‘a glass of milk with honey.’
‘Of course, and a cookie, cinnamon if possible.’
‘The speech doesn’t fit the appearance and the appearance doesn’t fit the speech,’ ponders the café owner as she sets the milk down on the table.
‘What is that outfit?’ she slides the steaming glass carefully across the table, her hands red and determined. The old lady turns her eyes away from the window, looks kindly at the woman, and says:
‘What’s your name, my child?’
‘Anna,’ says the old lady quietly, ‘I am reliving the happiest moment of my life, I was a little girl then.’
Lublin, Poland 1940
Today she turns six. She twirls happily round the room and only a small part of her face is exposed to the world. Her whole world is a small, square room. A little kitchen.
Above the slit in the material, intended to allow her eyes to look out on the world, dangles a long, fleshy trunk, swinging down to her ankles. The child spins round on the wooden floor between the people’s knees, dancing and humming a childish tune. In her imagination she sees their thighs sprouting a magic garden, an enchanted playground.
The people are playing cards on the tabletop. Her parents are diligently competing against another couple and another man whose face she remembers. He looks like a dog. When he came to their house she would greet him with the barks and growls of a little animal. The man would laugh and swing her affectionately up into the air and in her childish soul she believed that such loving creatures might exist, half dog and half man.
The people’s voices trickle down to her from above, muffled by old wood of the kitchen table. The elephant costume had just been presented to her by her father in honor of her sixth birthday. Her mother had been busy sewing it for five months, working at night in the light of the lamp. In the mornings the child would wake up in excitement and run to the kitchen to inspect the progress of the creation. How she longed to be an elephant already. Blissful feelings envelop her in her private corner, sweet as those of a gosling protected by a warm calcium shell.
A storm is gathering, and the people in the kitchen concentrate on the pieces of cardboard, the shabby cards representing a nonsensical notion of aristocracy. The fencing taking place on the table is one of the dozens of card games mimicking battles among the upper classes. From the lowness of the floor and the depths of the elephant fur, the child listens to the grownups – exchanging queens and destroying princes. She strolls pleasantly among her orchard of legs and mounts a white horse whose mane billows and tickles her face. The horse leaps over a ditch, and a loud explosion assaults the air. The blast rips the window frames and sticks the piano cover to the ceiling. The kitchen fills with dense smoke and pathetic pieces of cardboard scatter and sail through the air. Scraps of princes, kings and hearts drop to the floor and bits of charred corpses of parents and neighbors soil an orchard of amputated legs. A sour smell of war and evil fills the air.
None of the adults at that event, if they had survived, would have imagined that from that time forth the child would not take off the elephant costume. Her parents could not have guessed that even when she grew old and was about to leave the world she would still clothe her face and her body in the armor of the elephant. In the course of the years she would come across people who were able to perceive the covering of fur on her body. Who could vaguely conceive of its gray velvet, the leggings embroidered with big, square nails, the ears hanging like two felt pancakes from either side of her face, the satin tusks, the square rear filled with laundered sea sponges, the sweet little elephant with a child inside it. But her parents, even if they had survived the event, would not have imagined any of this. Because their minds were occupied by cards. By the foolishness of upside-down people, decked out in finery, playing war.
And indeed, a few minutes after the events of the birthday, real war broke out in the street where the house with the kitchen was located. And then it spread to the neighborhood, the city, the province and the country. Within a short space of time the war occupied a place of honor in the whole civilized world about which the child inside the elephant would remember nothing. For from this moment forth the continent would begin to be wiped out of the world, and a different one, with a cruel heart, would gradually replace it and cancel out everything that went before. From this moment on the elephant and its child would unite in the vortex and be welded together for ever.
The world begins with a little girl. Hunted.
The Belzec Death Camp, Poland, Spring 1942
The ravens sense the coming of spring. A little tickle pulses in their throats and the sun stings their eyes. The down on their bellies ruffles pleasantly in the light breeze and it comes off and drops in fluffy black lumps to the ground. Now they delight in their thickening thigh muscles, and the power growing in their gullets.
When the willow showed the first signs of budding, the flock of ravens stopped gathering on the fields of corpses and devoted a day or two to pairing off. They would glide through the air or hop and bow on the ground in a dance of courtship and seduction. At this time of year the male ravens tend to raise a loud commotion of raucous chatter. The females who are somewhat sensitive, withdraw and watch from a distance.
A female raven thought to herself that one of the males seemed worthy of her attention. Covus Corax, in other words, a perfect specimen of a fine black raven. In the first nest in which the young female knew whom she would wish to crown as the father of her offspring, she longed for the enchanted moment in which the two of them would crowd together in the nest, rub against each other, and exchange the hoarse whispers and melodies known only to ravens.
When she sensed his gaze from the top of the tree, she began to cluck and hop daintily at its foot. He peeked at her cautiously between the leaves, trying to appear indifferent. ‘Why hide,’ he thought in his shame, ‘in any case my lust will cost me dearly.’ Two days later he gave up, hopped down to her and the cold ground with a happy caw, and from that moment forth they were never separated.
They soon began to search for a suitable place to build their common nest and they found a charming corner in the yard of the officers’ quarters, far from the stench of the corpses. They settled in a convenient nook between the branches of the tree standing next to the entrance to the officers mess.
The ravens were well acquainted with the routines of the camp. They fastened onto this place because of the abundance of food heaped up on the ground.
After three successful seasons of propagation, the whole flock had already learnt to observe on their evening flight the people being torn with yells from the coaches and the men dressed in black hurrying them to the edges of the pit into which in a moment they would fall shot – fine, fresh food.
The pair of young ravens, both born under the sign of Pisces, had themselves hatched not far from the willow on which they now pinned their family expectations. Since they had fed all their lives on the flesh of dead people, especially children, whose flesh was particularly soft and tender, they had grown tall and they were big and gleaming. Their feathers shone as brightly in the mild sun as the polished boots of the SS officers, and perhaps even more. Such healthy ravens had not been seen in the area of Lublin for years.
Nature was in bloom and this was the time for evolutionary thoughts. Groups of ravens assembled on the grass to discuss the task of collecting twigs for building nests, or the requirements of the goslings about to hatch. In the morning a lively debate took place regarding the need to sing to the babies before they hatched. Opinions were divided in two and resounded in hoarse caws and brandishing of beaks while plucking insects from the ground. The party in favor of pre-natal education claimed to have clear memories from the time before they were hatched. In order to prove this claim a skinny young bachelor flew onto the tin roof of the mess hall and began to sing, in rhythmic squawks, songs from his prenatal memories. The females burst out laughing and buried their beaks in the thin grass, pretending to be won over, but in fact mocking his thinness and his conceit. Thin males were not considered winning candidates for propagation. The skinny bachelor continued to prove his case for instilling values during the prenatal period with vociferous song, until a soldier fed up with his cawing and squawking lost his temper and shot him.
The shot raven lacked any standing and his death was no more important to the flock than that of an insect. The females cawed: ‘Good riddance’, instantly forgot his tragic death and expired existence, and went back to pecking the ground with a will.
At the same time, the lovebirds had already laid their first egg in the heights of the willow tree overlooking the entrance to the officers mess. Of which it may be said: ‘One comes and one goes.’
The soldier, who watched the raven plummeting from the top of the roof, was thrilled with the accuracy of his sharp-shooting and said to himself that at the first opportunity – when the coast was clear of his superior officers – he would repeat the experience. And thus he would do his bit to reinforce the saying that one person’s pleasure is often the misfortune of another.
A little girl dressed up as an elephant had just been pushed off the coach onto the platform. A young woman hugging a rosy baby held out her hand to her and said ‘Futerko’ – a word which means little fur in Polish. ‘Come with me, I’ll look after you.’ The eyes of the child, who now saw herself as ‘Futerko’, peeped out of the depths of the fur at the woman who had generously offered her temporary motherhood. She liked her. She felt the closeness between the woman and the baby. She sensed the protection and yearned for it. And so she agreed to put her frozen little hand in hers.
From above, on the midday flight, the female lovebird, the future mother, singled her out as lunch. ‘Something furry has arrived,’ she cawed to other crows. ‘It’s mine!’
At precisely this moment, from the entrance to the officers mess next to the willow tree, the little daughter of one of the commanders of the camp came skipping out to play and chase the ravens hopping on the grass. The sharp-shooting soldier smiled at her and patted her flaxen head.
‘Happy birthday to you, Inge,’ he said in a deferential tone to the little girl who raised her eyes and saw his shining, perfect teeth.
‘Thank you, Sergeant Rolf,’ replied Inge, ‘Tomorrow I’ll be eight.’
‘I know,’ said the soldier, ‘you’re a big girl now, soon you’ll be able to learn to play the piano.’
‘Yes,’ she said happily, ‘the piano.’
In the afternoon Lotte, Inge’s mother, said to her husband, Obersturmbannfuehrer Rudinger Vonderholtzen:
‘Rudi dear, can you arrange a piano teacher for our Inge from among the inmates? And don’t forget your gloves my dear – it’s chilly out.’
‘See it as done, commander!’ replied her husband with a smile.
He went to the office in charge of registering the inmates and found one who played in the camp orchestra – the orchestra that played so beautifully on the court in front of the new gas chambers. His eye was caught by the description of a German speaking inmate whose number was 135713. He did not bother to check any further details regarding the prisoner. It was enough for him that number 135713 was skilled in playing both the piano and the violin. He made a note of the number and was moved by the good fortune of this Jew to have such a fine sequence of primary numbers tattooed on his left arm.
When he arrived at his office he filled in a form requesting the ‘part-time allocation of an inmate to meet the requirements of the personnel.’ In remarks he wrote: ‘To act as a piano teacher for my daughter Inge Vonderholtzen.’ He read what he had written twice out loud and filled with satisfaction at the sight of his neat handwriting. Then he took a stamp out of his desk drawer and dipped it in ink to confirm the request. ‘That’s how it is,’ he mused, ‘Obersturmbannfeuhrer Rudinger Vonderholtzen – in other words me – can do whatever he likes in Belzec. After all, I am here as the direct emissary of the Fuehrer, exclusively in charge of establishing a prototype for dealing with Jewish resources for the benefit of the war effort.’
Rudi Vonderholtzen had succeeded in attracting the Fuehrer’s attention at a seminal event which took place in 1940 in honor of the veterans of the ‘Euthanasia’ campaign: the leaders of the campaign were invited to spend a perfect weekend in a hotel somewhere in the Bavarian mountains. At the festive dinner the Fuerher himself honored them with his presence. He made a speech in appreciation of the holy work done during the execution of the campaign. And then he informed them that from now on they would be assigned to a new project, intended to improve the methods of elimination learned during the euthanasia campaign and apply them to the Jews. ‘I invite you to share the experience you have acquired with me. Anyone who has any ideas about how to streamline the process is invited to share them with us.’ By ‘us’ he meant the row of senior officers sitting beside him at the dining table.
Vonderholtzen raised his hand in excitement and was given the floor.
‘I thank our Fuerher for the opportunity to propose a few ideas that in my humble opinion could bring in considerable sums of money…’
The Fuerher rose from his seat and stood with hands resting on either side of his pudding.
‘Go on, I’m listening,’ he said warmly.
‘In my opinion,’ said Vonderholtzen and a slight feeling of anxiety crept into his throat.
‘Go on, go on,’ the Fuerher encouraged him, and a pleasant smile spread over his face.
‘In my opinion, the control we exercise over the process of elimination of the Jews will enable us to exploit certain resources that will profit the treasury of the Fatherland….I’m not talking about clothing, or valuables that we already sort out and sell or distribute to the needy of our people…’
The Fuerher and the officers on either side of him looked at him attentively, with faint but benevolent smiles on their faces. For a moment the picture of Leonardo’s Last Supper on the inside cover of his childhood Bible flashed before his eyes. In the presence of these men he always felt small.
‘I’m talking about….if it’s possible….and if I may suggest it….gold teeth. Yes! Gold teeth. Which might … without any problem…be melted down into standard units….the technology is well-known…. and be traded on the world market. The price of an ounce of gold today is…I think… approximately…..38 American dollars. You understand…..all you need is another inmate with a pair of pliers…. It won’t increase the cost of the elimination, and it’s pure profit.’
In the handsome hall with its polished oak-paneled walls, its ceiling festooned with antique crystal chandeliers, its windows framing the peaks of the Zugspitze in honor of the guests, silence fell. You could almost hear the canned peaches fainting on the sides of their saucers.
The Fuerher knitted his brows, still smiling benignly, and then he turned his face sharply towards the three officers sitting on his left and said loudly:
When he turned his face back to the center of the room, he removed his hands from the table and began to clap.
‘Well done!’ he beamed.
For a split second, before they stood up, the heads of the commanding officers were turned to their leader, creating the picture of a perfect triangle. The painting of the Last Supper, the Messiah, his halo and his disciples, rose vividly in Vonderholtzen’s mind, which was delirious with joy. He felt that he had blessed with a sanctified moment. A moment in which a benevolent higher power had enabled his genius to emerge into the light and shine like a comet. And all in the presence of the Fuerher himself.
The motorcar, Belzec Death Camp 1942
Inmate number 135713 sat with the orchestra at the entrance to the gas chambers and played ‘Tales from the Vienna woods’. He tried his best to control the madness which had been steadily growing inside him for the past few months and threatening to make him throw himself in front of a loaded gun and put an end to this nightmare once and for all.
For some months now he had been planning to end his miserable existence, and on two pretexts he had already put off his self-execution twice. The first: a piece of paper on which he had jotted down a few musical notes. A tune he had once composed in honor of his son Johan’s tenth birthday. He sometimes succeeded in introducing these notes into the playing of the orchestra of which he was now a part. He envisioned the day on which he would elaborate the melody he had created into a complete work, which would be published after the war.
An additional reason for postponing the end was a sacred task: to sweeten the last hours of life of the women and children on their way to their deaths. In this he would try to persevere until the end.
In the afternoon an armed soldier came and dragged him outside the camp.
‘Where to?’ he cried and his heart was full of hope that he was going to his death.
‘To the home of uh – the commandant, uh – the most important SS officer here as far as you’re concerned – Obersturmbannfuehrer Rudinger Vonderholtzen!’ the soldier yelled into his ear. He made him wash quickly under a hose of icy water next to the gate and put on a clean inmate’s uniform.
As he was being dragged with blows and lashes of the whip, inmate number 135713 hummed his tune to himself, which almost succeeded in making him forget the agony of the blows. And since he was convinced that he was being dragged to his unnatural death a small flame of happiness flickered within him at having been saved making the decision himself.
The commandant’s house was situated near the railway station, in the residential zone of the personnel. It was a double-storied stone building 924 meters from the gates of the camp. In front of it stood a Horst 12 Cabriolet motorcar, with a leather coat and officer’s cap lying on the driver’s seat. 135713 stared in astonishment at the motorcar and his slender neck stiffened. His wide-open eyes went on staring at the vehicle and did not blink when he was dragged up the five threshold steps, nor when his back hit concrete as he was thrown into the building nor when he was kicked into a handsome room with a life size photograph of the Fuerher hanging on the east wall. His eyes staring in the direction of the motorcar bored a long tunnel through the stone wall.
When he was seated at the piano, which squatted like a sleepy buffalo in the middle of the living room, a whiplash descended on the nape of his neck. A buzzing filled his head, together with the yells of his torturer:
‘Now concentrate, Jewish slave. Uh – your life now depends on how you succeed in teaching Inge to play the uh – piano, you will call her uh – Fraulein Inge, understood?!’
He heard the door slam and remained alone. The buzzing in his ears faded and he started to listen to the sounds of the house: the noises of cooking in the kitchen, the merry laughter of a little girl, the revving engine of a Horst 12 motorcar. His mind filtered out the sounds of the house and followed the roar of the receding motorcar fanatically until it died away.
After the first day Inge lost interest in her piano lessons. None of her mother’s pleas and sermons about the importance of playing the piano helped.
‘You never forget how to play the piano, Ingelein, never.’
When all attempts to induce musical talents in the child failed, 135713 was returned to his violin in the orchestra, beaten and chastised. ‘Transferred due to unsuitability,’ was written in the records.
As a substitute for piano lessons Inge demanded to learn how to shoot a revolver. Her mother objected strenuously, she stamped the heels of her blue shoes on the floor, her brows quivered in anger, and the Obersturmfeuhrer quailed in the face of her fury. On the second morning after the birthday the mother went to run errands in the town and the child raised her tender head to her father and said sweetly: ‘Daddy, can we do the revolver today?’
Her soft golden curls tickled his arm. The father bowed his head to her little hand resting on his knee and softly kneading the black material of his uniform, and said with a heart full of love: ‘Yes, dear, today father will see to it that Inge learns to shoot a revolver.’
The child jumped for joy, emitting shrill cries of delight, until Sergeant Rolf standing guard at the door stuck his head into the house to see what had inspired the jubilation.
‘Rolf,’ said the officer, an idea coming into his head at the sight of the sergeant’s peeping face, ‘give Inge the little revolver and teach her how to shoot the ravens. The time has come for the daughter of Rudinger Vonderholtzen to know how to shoot something.’
‘Yes!’ the little girl jumped for joy, ‘Yes, daddy, shoot! Bang, bang! Just like daddy.’
Rolf hesitated, both because he was a hesitator by nature – one of those whose lives are enriched by doubts – but mainly because he remembered that Inge’s mother could come home at any minute, and he knew that when officer Rudinger Vonderholtzen encountered the furiously quivering brows of his wife, he would shift the blame to him.
But the child left the two men no loophole of escape. She bounded from the hall to the bedroom, stubbing her pink toes as she ran up the stairs, filling the air with her thudding feet and panting breaths. Then she disappeared out of sight for a moment, reappeared on the second floor landing and in three seconds flat charged down the stairs and stood happy and sweating on the ground floor, brandishing the gilded object in her hand – the officer’s gift to his wife Lotte on the occasion of the delivery of the perfect baby Inge – a handsome revolver weighing exactly 98 grams.
Rolf and Inge had already taken up their positions opposite the willow tree when Rudi emerged from the front door, blinking in the sun. From a distance he observed his little daughter struggling to steady the revolver aimed at the ravens’ nest ensconced on a branch of the tree. Full of satisfaction at the sight, he stepped vigorously into the motorcar and drove slowly over the dirt road in the direction of the camp.
A special afternoon parade was about to provide him with his daily pleasure. Long lines of cowed human beings would stand humbly before their judge, looking at him admiringly. This at least was what he thought.
Rudi stepped out of the car and stood proudly on the muddy ground, trying to avoid getting any mud on his polished leather boots. He turned and with a spring in his step crossed the space next to the five lines of inmates standing in silence, absorbing the roars of the junior officers educating them in their inferior status.
‘They are doing it very well, exactly according to my instructions,’ he reflected. ‘I wonder if my assessment is accurate. I wonder how many gold teeth, on average, you can get from a Jewish inmate.’
Suddenly he felt a revulsion at the idea of having to look from close up into the stinking mouths of three hundred inmates, and he therefore asked the officer in charge to order them to smile into the sun, so that he could examine them from a distance. But when they smiled he was unable to see their teeth, and so he commanded them to laugh out loud.
Three hundred starving men, turned into bloody wounds by murder and inexplicable torment, began to laugh on command. At first there rose from the back line sounds of feeble and affected coughing. But when the junior officers began to run among them and whip them, the voices grew a little fuller. One of the inmates, a youth whose face was gray with typhus, managed to connect the grim to the ridiculous in his mind, and the moment the lash of the whip descended on his back, he yelled out loud in a German accent: ‘Ha ha ha ha ha!’ The mischief of this act underlined the absurdity of the scene. An imaginary button turned and changed the frequency. The officers’ heads turned round angrily to locate of the source of the impudence. Too late. From the rows of inmates loud laughter began to rise. Real laughter. Anyone whose back was whipped laughed louder. The agonies of mind and body were transformed into laughter. The hunger, the fear, the despair, the insult, the hatred, the frozen weeping, the madness and the death – were transmuted into infectious laughter, into merriment against all logic. The grounded soul of the Jewish inmates beat its wings to freedom.
The three hundred inmates shuddered and swayed. They held their stomachs, their heads, opened their mouths wide, choked, cried – and were careful to avoid each other’s eyes lest the laughter deepened and endangered the stability of their inner organs. Their voices rose and strengthened, soared and gained power, flew up and raged – like the mounds of hair behind the gas chambers, like the mountains of shoes and the suitcases piled up in the sorting sheds, like the wide valleys of the dead gaping at the sky, like the thousands of somber, screeching, voracious ravens seeking their daily pound of flesh.
Fear crept into the hearts of the officers. The mirth of the men sentenced to death undermined their confidence in the terminality of life. They wondered if they should weaken the lashes of their whips, struggled against a wayward, involuntary smile threatening to invade their faces. Only Vonderholtzen and the officer in charge of the parade remained intent on their task. As far as they were concerned, the death awaiting the inmates was final – for both body and soul. Vonderholtzen took a silver pen out of his jacket pocket and began to count the flashes of gold in the gaping mouths of the first row. He noted his conclusions in his notebook, trying to keep the commotion and the cawing of the ravens from interfering with the task, or God forbid – with the neatness of his handwriting.
‘My assessment will be accurate only with regard to the front teeth. Their extraction is easy and their weight less than two grams,’ reported Vonderholtzen in a yell to the officer standing at his side. ‘About the molars we will have to think again….I thank you from the bottom of my heart. And now I must run to the platform next to the showers, I have been holding up a transport from Lublin for two days already due to hair assessments.’
Outside the new gas chambers 2357 people were sitting on the ground. Since they had been torn out of the coaches two days had passed. Mainly women and children were sitting silently on the ground. The lips of the little children were cracked from dryness. They were surrounded by sentries who shot at them from time to time, and occasionally at the ravens.
Vonderholtzen drove slowly and braked at the edge of the platform. His face broadened in satisfaction when the guards jumped to attention. He reached for the glove compartment in order to take the form for the human transport and fill in the details, and realized that he had left it at home. With a slight, hardly perceptible, flick of his finger he summoned one of the soldiers, and when the latter hurried up to him and clicked his heels together – he said:
‘Be so kind as to call my house and ask Sergeant Rolf to bring me the paper I left on the kitchen table, and tell him it’s urgent.’
When the telephone rang in the house, Sergeant Rolf removed the revolver from Inge’s hand and run inside to answer it. Once the urgency of the task was made clear, and since Inge’s mother had not yet returned from the town, he went outside and said: ‘Sweet Inge, now Rolf has to leave you to play by yourself…ten minutes…and he’ll be right back.’
‘Nooooooooo…’ said the child and her eyes filled with tears. ‘The revolver!’
‘Sweetie, wait just a little while, count to a thousand and Rolf will be back.’
‘But I don’t know up to a thousand,’ sobbed Inge.
‘Then count to five hundred twice,’ said the baffled Rolf.
‘Noooo!’ said the child and her voice among the sobs was very firm. ‘I want to ride with Rolf on the motorbike!’
Reluctantly Rolf sat the child before him on the motorbike and raced to the platform at the end of the tracks. He understood the seriousness of his mistake when he saw the Horst, and the expression on Vonderholtzen’s face, and Inge’s mouth opening at the sight of the great crowd of fainting women and children sitting the ground.
‘There are children here!’ cried Inge joyfully, ‘Daddy, I want to play with the children!’
Vonderholtzen had no time to scold Rolf, because he had to pick up his daughter and whisper in her ear: ‘it’s forbidden to play with these children, they’re Jewish children. You remember what daddy told you about the Jews?’
‘To play with the children!’ Inge began to cry and her voice rose and broke in sorrow – because she had just discovered a treasure of which she was about to be robbed.
Vonderholtzen was in a quandary. He knew that the eyes of all the soldiers were fixed on him and he pressed his lips to Inge’s ear and whispered as he stroked her cheek: ‘Daddy will allow Inge to choose one little girl to play with until tomorrow.’
Inge stopped crying immediately and began to examine the people sitting on the ground. Vonderholtzen waited with an embarrassed smile on his face. At the same time he tried to banish a worrisome thought concerning his wife’s reaction to the deal he had made with his daughter.
From a distance, among the thousands of people Inge saw a patch of brown fur. She gazed at it intently, stretched out her little hand and announced: ‘That one!’
Three officers ran a hundred meters to the patch of fur and hoisted it into the air. Now it could clearly be seen that it was a child dressed up as an elephant.
‘That one! The elephant!’ cried Inge in excitement. She felt that she had made a unique discovery which had escaped the awareness of the grownups.
‘Futerko!’ cried the woman with the baby, guilt-stricken by the abandonment of the child she had promised to look after. ‘We’ll wait for you here until you return.’
‘Futerko….’ murmured Inge to herself, ‘it’s an elephant called Futerko.’
Needless to say, that evening Lotte Vonderholtzen’s eyebrows quivered in anger once again.
‘What’s that smell?’ she asked.
‘It’s Futerko,’ replied Inge, dragging the child elephant behind her, hanging its head in shame.
Her mother looked accusingly at the commandant, but since the welfare of her daughter’s soul was at stake, she restrained herself and said quietly:
‘Ingelein, the Jewess can’t stay with us, it’s ikhsa. Give her to Daddy to send her back.’
‘Nooooooooooo!’ Inge embraced Futerko and barred the way with her body.
‘Ingelein darling, Jews are dangerous. They transmit diseases. See how she stinks.’
Inge fell silent for a moment and Lotte, encouraged by her silence, reached out to seize the elephant’s fur.
‘Nooooooooo!’ yelled Inge again so loudly that Rolf, standing guard at the door, tripped over the threshold and fell into the house.
‘A shower,’ insisted Inge. ‘We’ll give the elephant a shower!’
Vonderholtzen, who up to this moment had been leaning against the doorpost in embarrassed silence, said quietly to his wife: ‘Why don’t we leave it for tonight my dear, by tomorrow she’ll change her mind.’
‘What’s your name sweetheart?’
Asked the inmate wearing a maid’s uniform in the basement.
‘Futerko,’ replied the child.
‘Little fur!’ said the maid, ‘Sweet little fur, let’s take off the costume and give you a nice hot bath.’
‘Water…..’ said Futerko and dropped like a feather to the floor.
The maid restored her, gave her water to drink, and afterwards cuddled her on her lap and fed her cabbage soup with potatoes.
‘That’s enough,’ she said, ‘not too much, we don’t want to get a tummy ache.’
‘Yes,’ said Futerko, nestling in her lap, ‘we don’t want to get a tummy ache.’
Futerko remembered the bath like a sweet dream. Warm, fragrant water caressing her aching body. Loving hands gently soaping and fingertips stirring cleanliness into her hair.
‘The elephant….’ Said Futerko before she fell asleep.
‘In the morning,’ replied the maid, ‘it will be dry in the morning.’
Inge woke up at six in the morning pink with excitement. She jumped out of bed and presented herself in her parents’ bedroom.
‘Where’s Futerko?’ she demanded, shaking Frau Vonderholtzen.
‘What’s Futerko?’ asked her mother, still asleep.
‘Futerko! Where’s Futerko?’ yelled Inge in alarm.
Vonderholtzen’s eyes opened into narrow slits and he mumbled hoarsely:
‘Tell her that the Jewess is in the basement.’
‘The Jewish child is in the basement, Inge. And mama will let you play with her until this afternoon.’
‘And after that?’
‘After that she will have to be returned to the camp.’
‘Why will she have to?”
‘Because she is destined for the showers.’
Frau Vonderholtzen was too sleepy to be selective about the amount of truth in the words that came out of her mouth.
‘What do you mean for the showers? She’s already had a shower hasn’t she?’ demanded Inge with a wail in her voice.
‘It means to evaporate her,’ said Vonderholtzen irritably and got up.
‘Rudi, have you lost your mind?’ said Lotte who had just fully woken up.
“I’m fed up with this whole business,’ he snapped at his wife, and to Inge he said: ‘Yes! She has to be destroyed, and so you can’t play with her! And that’s it!’
At this moment Inge realized that she had to harness all her powers of persuasion in order to achieve what she longed for above all: a playmate. So she shut her mouth to fill her lungs with air and began to emit an impressive array of shrill screams and shrieks, waving her thin arms in the air. She fell onto the wooden floor next to her parents’ bed, and banged her head on the floor screaming: ‘Nooo, nooooooo, nooo, nooo, nooo!’
Until she turned blue.
Translated by Dalya Bilu