Max Zimmerman stepped out from the smoke filled sticky air of the Gasthause and into the warm August night. The old songs were still ringing in his ears as the other revellers continued inside; for them the night was still young but Max had not been young for a long, long time and now he was ready to take the slow stroll back along the dusty unmade track that led over the rural railway line, and then a further half a kilometre to his home. Max lived alone in the three rooms above his modest bespoke jewellery shop, in a small village near to Hohne, a British Army garrison town in Northern Germany. He had never married. Back inside the Gasthause Max's two old comrades were also retiring, to the familiar rooms that Max had booked once again for this year's reunion, as he did each year. He used to book all the rooms that the modest Inn could provide, but now there were only two fellow survivors left. ‘Soon’, Max thought with some sadness,’ he would be booking no rooms’.
Max paused at the corner of the building, reaching out a gnarled hand to steady himself and thinking, ‘Ha, I must have drunk more than I thought tonight’. Those same gnarled hands had lovingly fashioned some of the exquisitely crafted silver and gold that lay behind the barred window of his small shop. He looked up the track towards the railway rubbing his heavily lined eyes with his other hand, then shook his head to clear the oddly blurred image he had of the upright barrier and the unmanned signal box (he had left Horst, the signal box keeper, back in the Gasthause - there would be no more trains until the morning), and the small tool shed that stood there. Still feeling unsteady Max sat on the low wall that bordered a pot-holed unpaved parking area at the front, and reached into a pocket for the trusty old hand carved pipe that he kept there. Parked nose on to the wall there was a Mercedes that belonged to the landlord, two Volkswagen Beetles, and a British Army Military Police Land Rover (the patrol from the nearby Garrison grabbing a crafty beer). Two or three ancient bicycles were leaning precariously against the far corner of the wall.
The night was warm, balmy even, and Max had all the time he liked so he thought he would sit there a while, smoke a pipe, and then continue the walk home. As he sat, drawing in a lung full of the pungent smelling tobacco smoke, he looked up and down the straight dirt track - it was certainly no more than that, becoming a muddy river in the thaw after winter, and a hard baked dust trap in the summer - but the way home still looked indistinct, sort of 'out of focus', and so he decided to sit just a little longer. Three soldiers wearing bright red caps and white belts with matching white Sam Brownes came out of the Gasthause, jumped into the Land Rover and sped away up the track throwing up a great cloud of dust and forcing Max to shield his eyes for a moment, then hardly slowing to bounce over the rough level crossing.
Max was a slightly built man, with not an ounce of spare fat to cover his old bones. He hadn't always been so thin. As a child he was overweight, fattened by his mother's stew and potato dumplings with red cabbage. Never able to take part in the more physical aspects of school, due to his weight and poor eye to hand co-ordination in anything sporty. School, with the exception of any Arts or Crafts at which he excelled, had been a hell for him, or so he had thought. Hell, real hell, was about to come.
The last time Max had been truly overweight had been in 1939, when he was fifteen years old. Even back then, when food had been so rationed and was so hard to get, mamma had still been able to provide the great meals that had been his downfall. The quality of the food had certainly fallen , but of what there was, there was plenty for "my dear little Max".
1939 had been the year they came for him. Always in the dead of night, the Crystal Night. The trucks and the dogs and the soldiers in their big billowing grey capes. It had been a bitter cold November night. The snows had come early that year and lay deep in the roads and on the roofs of the buildings. At first the only tracks in the snow came from the truck tires. Then the people were herded out of their homes, most still in their night clothes, walking through the snow in their naked feet; men, women, children. All of them beaten into the trucks that then sped away into the darkness, a short journey to the railway yard. Some had managed to grab a few pitiful possessions but where the trucks had stood the ground was littered with dropped treasures, a few clothes, the odd small hastily packed case, a broken photograph. The soldiers returned to the houses now, searching out the hidden, success being punctuated by the gunshot crack of summary execution.
The train that stood patiently waiting for them had already travelled a long way, picking up its human cargo along the way from Poland, from Hungary and now from the small town just south of Frankfurt, in Southern Germany, home to the Zimmerman family. There were thirty five cattle trucks hitched to a wheezing old steam engine that had been captured early on in Germany's strike into Poland. Painted onto the front of the engine was a great blood red Eagle. The first twenty three trucks were already packed full. By the time the train reached its destination all the trucks would be filled with around sixty people crammed into each one.
So tightly were they crammed in that nobody could lie down at any time; the dead were held upright by the living, and there were many dead. The train carried just over two thousand souls on its journey to Hell.It took days to travel North through Germany, days during which the doors to the trucks remained firmly shut. They spent two full days on a siding outside Hannover due to the success that a recent air raid by the Allies had made in destroying the rail system around that city. Hundreds of slave workers laboured in the cold to rebuild the tracks - inside the cattle trucks Max could hear the thud of their picks, and the clubs and whips that urged them on in their toil. Some of the luckier truck occupants found meagre pieces of bread pushed through cracks in the wood, pushed in by the braver of the slave workers who themselves had little to live on but knew the horror of 'The Train'. An occasional gun shot marked the ones that were caught in their act of selfnessless. One slave worker was not so lucky as the guards turned loose three of the dogs and allowed the animals to tear the man to pieces. Max covered his ears to the man's screams, mercifully cut short as they were.
At last the train moved off again, still North. And then the train stopped for the last time and the doors on the trucks were hauled open. The guards were standing well back as this happened, and it was pitiful caricatures of human beings, dressed in striped rags and with scraps of filthy cloth held over their faces to keep out the awful stench of the train, that released them from their confinement. First the dead were to be pushed out. Seventeen had perished in Max's truck and these were all stacked onto a stream of carts that other prisoners dressed in the strange striped garb were pushing - two prisoners to each cart, up to fifteen bodies on every one. Max whispered to one of the cart operators," Where is this place ? What is this place ?" The man looked sadly at the young Max and said "This place ? This place is called Bergen, Bergen-Belsen. Welcome to Hell". Then he resumed pushing his truck along a path that seemed to end at a huge chimney belching a foul smelling black smoke up into the clear night air.
Somehow, maybe it was luck, maybe fate, but somehow Max survived in Belsen until the British Army liberated that terrible place five years later in 1945. For a long time he was hospitalised in the nearby town of Celle, some fifty kilometres south of Hell. All his family had perished in the camp, but Max was able to find work as an apprentice to a Jeweller and humble lodgings, so he settled in Celle; he had nowhere else to go. Over the years he worked hard and saved carefully - he was well learned about how to survive on very little - and after ten years of hard work was able to start up his own tiny business. A few years later he moved on, perversely quite close to Bergen, to continue his business. Never destined to become a massive empire, he had developed a select clientele who liked his careful attentions to detail and his obvious care with their most precious of possessions.
Twenty-one years after he was carried out of Belsen in the arms of a weeping Lance Corporal Billy Harris, a TV company decided to make a documentary about some of the survivors. Their research had revealed the fact that eleven people in all had survived from the particular train that Max had travelled in. Of these eleven two had died within ten years of their liberation, one (a Hungarian) had proved totally untraceable and one other had just started a life prison sentence for murder. It was the spectacular trial of a murder victim that had prompted the TV program.
The victim had been the Chairman of a leading German chemical company, a man beyond reproach in German society. He had saved hundreds from death during the war, or so the story went. He donated millions of Marks to all kinds of causes. Two weeks before the trial he allocated One million Marks from his own pocket, towards the rebuilding of a synagogue, burnt to the ground by the secret but insidiously growing underground Nazi movement. He had been identified by an insistent survivor of the camps as a cruel and evil man, as the infamous Doctor Muller who ran the ‘medical research centre’ at Belsen.
So the testimony went on, until finally the court ruled that Doctor, Herr Franz Muller could not possibly be the same Doctor Muller who spent so much time developing and testing compounds that could improve upon the Zyclon-B gas that was proving quite efficient in the Death Camps of Germany; testing those compounds on the unlimited supply of Guinea pigs that were held at Belsen and other camps. Franz Muller was shot dead in the crowded courtroom (and live on ABC TV) by his accuser as the Judge's gavel fell. He died with the Judge's words still ringing in his ears " Case dismissed. You are free to go, Herr Doctor." The man who had pushed the cart for two years that took the 'waste material' from Franz Muller's laboratory knew though, he knew who Muller was, he knew what Muller was and he made sure that justice was done.
Just seven people still survived to tell the story of that nightmare train, one of many hundreds such trains. The program received world wide acclaim and raised one or two fresh questions about Franz Muller, but very quickly today's news became yesterday's news and the matter of Franz Muller, faded away. Following the program the seven decided to meet up on a yearly basis, each time at the home town of one of the seven. So the reunions had begun to take place, each one the subject of much sorrow, and of much joy. The years took their toll on the tiny gatherings and by 1996 there were only three survivors left. This year it had been the honour once again of Max to host the event. He had no room, much as he would have liked, to provide beds for his old comrades and so he had booked a room for each of them at the Gasthause in which they would meet to swap stories, to reminisce, to remember. This was the fifth time that it had been Max's turn and Erich, the Herr Ober, had set aside the same rooms as always. " Only two this time Max ? I am so sorry for you. Who have you lost this year ?" he had enquired gently.
Max had finished his pipe now and realised with a start that its bowl was quite cold. "How long had he been sitting there ?" he wondered. He stood again, tucked the pipe back into his cardigan pocket and started off for home. His head felt much clearer now, but strangely, the way ahead still looked, blurred, indistinct. Foggy ? Max was only wearing a thin shirt, light trousers and an equally thin cardigan - one pocket weighted by his pipe, the other by his leather tobacco pouch. As he drew nearer to the railway crossing he began to feel a chill. In the far off distance he heard a dog bark - no, not one dog but two, maybe three. The barks had a kind of familiar ring but Max couldn't quite place it and just shrugged to himself, ‘They must Werner's hunting dogs’ he thought as he pulled his cardigan tightly around himself against the chill, ‘they don't like to be cold either. Werner spoils them ! Still, it has been a good summer but maybe now the Autumn will be a little early...’ He walked on. It was colder, definitely colder now. By the time he reached the barrier pole Max was shivering. ‘This is most odd’ he thought. It was so foggy now that he could hardly see anything beyond the pole and behind him the Gasthause was long lost from sight, buried in the swirling mists.
As Max stepped off the track to cross the rails the temperature fell suddenly by at least twenty degrees. The cold shock hit Max and he stumbled against the side of the tool shed, his breath coming out of his mouth in great white plumes. The cold was bitter now, seeping into his very bones through his thin clothing and as he looked down at his feet he saw that they were buried in deep snow. " This is not right, not right at all " he said out loud now, shaking his head, but though he tried to turn around, to get away from the railway and back onto the track he found he could hardly move. Leaning heavily now on the side of the shed, its freezing timbers sucking the warmth from his body, he turned his head to look up towards the tiny village station.
The heavy freezing fog shrouded everything, breaking up in patches here and there to reveal nightmare like glimpses into the world that it covered. Max saw familiar looking shapes in the mist; first the grey capes swirling around, then the vicious looking dogs straining at their leashes. "No, no" said Max in horror, trying to dismiss the dawning realisation of what he was seeing, "No, this cannot be." Then he saw the people. Wraithlike figures moving through the fog towards the rail track. The tiny station was gone, vanished.
A single beam of light, dim at first then brightening into a white stabbing lance of incredible brilliance cut its way through the mist and the great black steam engine appeared, its own clouds of smoke and steam rising to entwine with the freezing fog, the red Eagle emblem on the engine appearing to be almost alive. Max heard the doors slide open on the stream of trucks that the engine drew behind. He was unaware of the spreading warmth from his groin as his bladder emptied and as he stared in disbelief at the tableau before him. Max slid slowly down the side of the tool shed, down into the soft white August snow. He sat there, his eyes transfixed as the human cargo was loaded into the train. Slowly, the engine lurched forward, first a centimetre, then a metre, creeping nearer and nearer.
As the cattle trucks passed by Max a hand appeared through a tiny gap in the wooden side of one of the trucks. It was a small hand, a child's hand, and it held a scrap of cloth. The cloth fluttered free from the hand as the truck went by, the sweep of the train catching it and tossing it around like a leaf in Autumn before it fell once more and Max reached out to catch it. His hand closed on the cloth and he held it tightly as if it were some kind of talisman to ward off the horror that he had just witnessed. He closed his eyes then and mumbled, " The trains are running again, the trains are running......"
It was Horst, the signal box keeper, who found Max in the morning. He had seen what looked like a bundle of rags by the side of the toolshed and went over to move it. Upon seeing that it was not a pile of rags but a human body, and then that it was the body of his dear friend Max, he ran to his signal box and called the Police. The Police arrived and after making an investigation of the area, arranged for Max's body to be taken to the hospital at Celle for an autopsy. When they moved Max they were puzzled to find the ground underneath him to be very wet and ice cold in the warmth of the early morning sunshine.
It was a few days later when the Police Inspector received a telephone call to advise him of the cause of death, " Hello Inspector Artze? It is all very strange. Your body, this Max Zimmerman ? He died of the cold. On an August night here in this wonderful summer of ours and you give me a corpse that has frozen to death! Oh, and another thing Inspector. We found something in his hand, something just as strange we think. He was holding a piece of cloth. It was cut like a star, a yellow star of David. This man froze to death holding one of those things that we Jews had to wear on our clothes during the Holocaust. I do not understand what happened here Inspector, indeed I am greatly troubled, but I would appreciate it if you could inform me of any developments".
"Yes Herr Doctor of course, danke, thank you very much" said the Inspector replacing his telephone. The Inspector stood up, walked around his desk, and looked out of his window, he was thinking back to another time. From there he could see into the gardens that surround the Opera House in Celle. He had attended many concerts there; he loved both Classical music and The Opera. There he stood, lost in thought for a long time, a very long time. Despite the warm sun hanging in a cloudless blue sky the Policeman felt a chill and closed the window. He turned away to sit once more at his battered old desk. Taking a small key from his waistcoat pocket (a place where that key always resided), he unlocked the left hand drawer of his desk, pulling it open just far enough to gaze down at the photograph that lay inside. There was only one other object in the drawer; a superbly crafted ceremonial gold dagger. ‘How many hours of toil, and what consummate skill, had gone into those delicate engravings of hunting scenes’, he mused. The blade held a secret that his father had passed on to him. A the point where the blade met the hilt, hidden in the face of the charging wild Boar that was depicted, there was a Star of David, a Star so small that only a magnifying glass could reveal it, and inside the Star were the initials ‘MZ’, a tiny act of defiance that went unnoticed until ten years after it had been made. Only chance had revealed the dark secret when Franz Muller, his eyesight beginning to fade, had inspected the blade yet again, but with a powerful magnifier. He had thought to polish it out if he could but was loath to risk damage to the ornate engravings and so the Star remained.
The Policeman’s name had not always been ‘Artz’, a surname chosen not by coincidence for the fact that it indicates the profession of ‘Doctor’. The photograph pictured him as a small child, standing next to his proud father, Franz Muller, who was shaking hands with a smiling Fuhrer. In the Fuhrer’s other hand was a golden dagger that he was presenting to Franz. After a few minutes he sighed, closed the drawer and carefully locked it. He placed a sheet of paper into the ancient typewriter that had belonged to his father and began to type.
He did not see the single perfect snowflake that landed on the ledge outside the window and then quickly melted under the blazing sun, yet as he laboured at his desk, his breath made wispy plumes in the chill air.
© Copyright 2016 mykaitch. All rights reserved.
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