THE DRAUGHTSMAN Robert Lautner
This novel is entirely a work of fiction.
The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it, while at times based on
historical events and figures, are the work of the author’s imagination.
The Borough Press
An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
Published by HarperCollinsPublishers 2017
Robert Lautner asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
First published by HarperCollinsPublishers 2017
Cover design by Claire Ward © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2018
Cover images © Mark Owen/Trevillion Images (figure); (all other images)
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Source ISBN: 9780008126711
Ebook Edition © January 2017 ISBN: 9780008126735
‘It is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.’
Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (1974)
Table of Contents
The site had become a squat for the disenfranchised, for anarchic youth. They even formed a cultural group. Artists and rebels. Appropriate. Perhaps.
Over the bridge, across the railway that once moved the iron goods from the factory to the camp at Buchenwald, Erfurt still maintained its tourist heart, its picture-book heart. A place where romance comes. Where carriages drawn by white horses still mingle with trams and buses and young and old marrieds hold hands crossing the market square. Rightly fitting, just so, that the industrial quarter on Sorbenweg ignored, left to rot, to be forgotten. A despised relative a hurt family no longer calls upon. Its only colour in the graffiti, signs and spray-paint portraits that only the youth understood.
The squatters removed, the land and remaining dying buildings reimagined. Erfurt ready to remember that history, no matter its shade, had something to pass on.
Myra Konns ran the morning tours of the museum risen from the ruins of the Topf administration buildings. She guided school-children through the original ISIS drafting tables they had found scattered and vandalised over the years by the transients, guided them through the director’s rooms still furnished with the wide cabinets that once held drafts for cremation ovens. Labels still sitting in their brass handles. The impression of ink soft and leaving. The drawers empty. Yawning only dust and memory. All restored now.
Myra would show them the small canisters with the clay plaques that the factory made to store ashes to be collected by relatives; a legal requirement until someone decided that it was no longer required. Hundreds of them found abandoned and empty in an attic in Buchenwald. These and other smaller items all on the third floor, where the drafting tables were repaired and displayed, where the chief designer’s office had been recreated, where the tours could still see from the window to Ettersberg mountain as the draughtsmen at their tables would have done and Myra would point out that the smoke from the Buchenwald ovens could be seen crawling over the mountain all day. All day.
The oven doors, removed from Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the most sombre items of the tour. No need to highlight the prominence of the company plaque set above them. Topf and Sons exhibited now as the ‘Engineers of the Final Solution’. A brochure saying so.
In one display cabinet Myra would put her hand to a drawing of an experimental oven, never employed; for the allies had closed in before its realisation. Beside it a letter from a director to Berlin explaining the function of the new design. And Myra would always choose her words with care.
‘It works on four levels over two floors, one of which is the basement, where the morgue would traditionally be, replaced by the furnace. The deceased would be put in at the top and a series of rollers over grates would convey them to the furnace. The letter confirms the effectiveness of the design at being able to work continuously. Day and night. Reducing the need for coal as the oven was intended to be fuelled by the deceased themselves. Hundreds, possibly thousands of corpses a day. No intention to distinguish one from the other. A machine. An eradication device criminal in nature and design. Thankfully never introduced. The Allies having liberated Auschwitz some months before.’
A hand went up in the midst of the group. Myra took a breath. An old man. Always a sparse group of old men and women dawdling amongst the children. In her induction, just the month before when the museum opened, Myra had been informed to be especially aware of the aged visitors. The air about the place theirs. The tomb of it theirs.
‘Excuse me, Fräulein,’ he bowed slightly. White, pomade-brushed hair and grey-blue eyes that smarted from the cold February wind outside, made worse by the radiator warmth of the halls. He wiped his eyes behind his glasses.
‘That correspondence does not refer to the design of the continuous oven. Of that oven.’
Myra’s breath released. Always one.
‘Sir. This letter has been donated from the Russian archives. It has been verified by many experts.’
He moved forward, his age more apparent in his careful step, in his politeness in moving through the young elbows that might bruise him as he passed.
‘Forgive, Fräulein. That oven – the continuous oven – was patented in 1942. That letter was for a circular design. From Herr Prüfer. From one of the engineers.’ He tapped a finger on the glass. ‘This drawing was for a new annotation of the previous patent. Ordered to be redrafted in May 1944.’
Myra looked between him and the glass display. Always one.
‘I’m sure it is not a mistake, sir.’
He wiped his forehead.
‘We have all made mistakes, Fräulein.’
He bent to the cabinet, lifted his glasses to peer at the fading paper within.
‘This is only an error. This article comes from the Americans, does it not?’
‘It is paired with the letter from the Russian archive.’
‘No.’ His lips thinned. ‘I can assure you.’
‘How is that, sir?’ As respectful as she could.
He moved towards her, as if he did not want the children to hear, as if he wished no-one but Myra to collect his whisper. She could smell the pomade in his hair, looked down at the expensive shoes as she moved to not tread on them.
‘Because I gave it to the Americans.’ His hand back to the glass shielding the exhibit. ‘Because I drew it.’
Myra found him sat outside. Cap playing in his hands, eyes at the ground. Sat beside him without invite. He began as if the conversation had started minutes before and he finishing it off, rounding it off politely so he could put on his cap and leave.
‘We were married in Switzerland. In ’41. Her parents had moved there. Run there. Etta’s father – Etta was my wife – was wealthy. Wealthy for those days. A property man. I thought I had done well to marry a woman of means. Poor all my life. Where are you from, Fräulein?’
‘Ah. Just so. I was born in Erfurt. You know the Merchants’ Bridge? That was my childhood home. An ancient place. The people ancient. Me – a boy – an intruder on the bridge. When my father needed to tan me I would hide all about the stairs and gutters. The little paths. Right under the bridge. He would never find me. Old cities full of hiding places. They are built around the hiding places. Modern cities are not like this. They are built straight and plain. Wide. Open. It is because the people do not need to hide as much. Old cities. They cringe around the churches like children to their mother’s skirts.’
Myra watched him look about the walls. Breathing them.
‘I was grateful to work here. No-one will understand. My Etta did not even understand. And she knew everything.’ The wink of German humour.
Myra leaned closer, had to speak over the noise of a new arrival of children.
‘What happened here?’
He put back his cap. Not to leave. Against the cold.
‘Nothing. Nothing happened here.’ Sat back against the bench. ‘Always the problem.’
He rubbed the salt and pepper grey of his stubble. Grunted at the disapproval of it.
‘Left early,’ he said. ‘To get here. I need a shave.’
I shave every other day. The new blade already dull when purchased, yet twice as expensive as the year before. Steel for higher order than grooming. But I will shave tomorrow morning as I am not the man I was yesterday. I have work now. My first since I graduated and married.
There is the man you were the last year, without work, and then there is this day. And nothing is the same. The clock ticks down the hours to your first day, not just to the next day. A man has signed your name alongside his own. A contract. Real work.
And you begin.
I always stand by the curtained window looking over the street three floors below when Etta and I have these serious talks. I have a cigarette and she lays on the chaise-longue that her mother gave her for our wedding. The window half-open to exhale my evening smoke and to watch the street pass by and listen to the trains bringing workers home. Our voices never raise. We have become dulled. Like the blades of my razor that were never sharp. I am too weary from not working and she is tired from me not doing the same. Only couples understand such malaise.
‘It is a job, Etta. Forty marks a week. We owe two months’ rent.’
‘A skilled draughtsman. Forty marks a week.’ Tutted her disdain.
I draw on my cigarette, blow it against the curtain, just to annoy.
‘It is a start. A beginning.’
‘A low one. You start from the bottom. Four years of study and you gain the lowest rung.’
‘I have no experience. Herr Prüfer has selected me because he came from the same study. That is a good wage for a new man. You want to stay in these rooms forever?’
A one-bed apartment with a kitchenette off the living-room. Etta put up new curtains which made all the difference. The curtains I was blowing smoke on.
She is draped over the chaise-longue like Garbo, her breasts accentuated through her dark dress, the one with the small red roses the same colour as her hair, the evening sun painting them further. I go back to smoking through the curtains and the window. A man below removes his homburg to wipe his sweating pate. Even at six o’clock it is still warm, warm for April, but all the businessmen are still in full dress, except that waistcoats seem to have vanished. Either a lack of textiles or some American trend. The harder grimier worker in cap, cardigan and jacket. That will not be me. I will be with the businessmen. I can feel Etta seething behind me.
‘I did not expect to be the wife of a man who makes pictures of grain silos for a living.’
Pictures. Pictures she says. Belittled with a word. Austrian women do this well, even the ones born in Erfurt like Etta. Austrian by proxy.
‘It is a start.’ I draw a long, calming drag. ‘They do other things. Crematoria. They do dignified crematoria.’
‘How is that “dignified”?’
She said this in that cursing inflection that Austrian women perfect along with their curtsies. Swearing and not swearing. Her mother’s voice.
‘I spoke to Paul about it last week. Before my interview.’
Paul Reul, an old school friend of mine. He had made a name for himself as a crematorist in Weimar, a successful businessman. A thing to be admired in wartime. We did not see him so much since the jazz club where we used to meet had been closed, since we had married. Always the way. Your single friends become strangers.
‘He told me Topf invented the electric and petrol crematoria. Changed the design so you could have a dignified service, like a church, with the oven in the same building. Topf did that. Made a funeral out of it.’
‘It is all disgusting.’
‘Before that the dead were all burnt out the back, a different place. Like hospitals. Just incinerators. Like for refuse.’ I punctuate smoke into the room. Etta revolted. Not at my smoke.
‘Stop talking about it. It is horrible. Why would you talk on such things?’
The cigarette goes out the window. Her disappointment a mystery. Real work. My first contract to draft plans since leaving the university. Silos or not. A start in wartime. Not an end. Not like so many others. But Topf and Sons were hiring. Everywhere else in Erfurt closing. I guess the army had need for a lot of silos.
She swings her legs from the lounger.
‘I have to get ready for work. There is some ham and pickles you can eat.’
She goes to the bedroom removing the pins from her hair as she sways, her voice over her shoulder.
‘I am pleased you have work, Ernst. I am just in a mood. And I shall probably miss you during the day.’
Etta’s café job started at seven. Three nights a week if we were fortunate. Kept us fed when my subsistence ran out and she could always bring home leftovers, sometimes unfinished wine if the diners could afford it. It was long work when it came. Often she would not return until past one, the café closing at ten for the blackout, but the work goes on beyond the leave of guests. Only staff know this. The hard work is after the bill has been paid.
She closed the door to change. Her mystery always maintained by how many doors she could close. Fewer now than in our old place that we could no longer afford. Here I would put my fingers in my ears when she made her toilet, her insistence, the rooms that small. In our bedroom we can hear our neighbours flushing their broken cistern. You don’t find that out when they show you the place.
She puts her make-up on before I wake. We sleep in separate beds, pushed together when desire desires. Three years married and I had never been permitted to know that she washed her undergarments, or seen them drying. As far as I knew she hung those silks out for faeries to attend to.
This her upbringing of course. Better than mine. My confidence in my good looks gave me no doubts why Etta Eischner should fall for a boy from the bridge. My grey-blue eyes and blond hair enough. But not to her parents. No reason for Herr Eischner to see why his daughter loved a penniless student, despite the blue eyes, despite the groomed blond hair. A boy from the bridge. Herr Eischner had plenty of suitable young men she could meet, rich stock like his, good stock. A boy from the bridge. Nothing in his pockets but dreams. Dancing in the clubs. Too much drinking, too much walking late at night. Too many dark alleyways for him to pull her into. The red look on her face when she came home far too late. She refused to join the bridge club or the Rotary, before they were outlawed of course, where good young men with connections and families could be found. The flame hair of her not the least of her fire.
Eventually he settled. Remembered even when little his daughter had always been looking for something she could never find, that even he could not satisfy, not when she was little and not when she had grown and argued with him on his politics and business. And that was why the blue-eyed boy came. She cooled after she had him. Poor boys from the bridge more capable than he where daughters are concerned. ‘Curiosity killed the cat,’ they say. To dismiss and persuade the young to seek. To tut, and warn them to not question. But they forget the final line: ‘But satisfaction brought it back.’ The poor boy from the bridge brought it back. The best the father would get.
I sniff my black tie that needs washing. All ties thin now. Again, either fashion or a textile shortage. I preferred them this way. Less like a noose. Tomorrow it will be a working tie. Odd to be starting new work on a Thursday. You assume Monday. They must be busy. Good. Though I will miss that serial play they put on the radio at lunch time. I suppose only housewives should listen anyway.
Working men do not need the radio.
Our apartment is on Station Street, a grey shrivelled building next to the largest hotel in Erfurt and we share a double-front door with the radio shop below us. I wink to Frau Klein, our landlady, sweeping the porch. She has not seen me outside the door before nine until now and she eyes me like the Devil.
‘Work to go to, Frau Klein,’ I tell her. ‘I start a new job this morning. Work at last! Won’t you be happy for me?’
She grunts, as those of her profession do when they have been widowed and forced to let out their rooms to young married smiles.
‘I will be happy to be paid.’ And the broom beneath the bosom drags on. But still I whistle as I step by. To add to her disdain of me, of all youth.
My name called from above. Etta with a kiss, a wave.
How fine it still is to have someone you love call out your name, past the time when it was necessary to do so across a fair or a crowded square in courtship, for now you do not need to meet, are always a hand’s reach from each other, and the echoed call of your name is rare. But going to work on your first day a time to hear the call again. And envious men look up with me to the pale shoulder slipped from the gown and the red tussled hair. And then their heads go back to their feet as I stride. Taller than them. If only in pride. I look at their passing fedoras. Eyeing those I may one day pick and choose to purchase. My own poor replica winter-beaten.
I had sold my bicycle, for who needs a bicycle in winter when there is only flakes of tea in the cupboards, so now I would walk to my employment in April sun following all the other black coats and hats to the station. But I am still grinning because I am not like them. I am one better than them. I will not be cramped and stifled in a smoky carriage. I am not an hour or two from my office. I will go through the station and over the footbridge to my work with Etta’s warm body still glowing on me. A mile walk. Just enough time to clear your head and good enough exercise for all the working week to keep off the fat which I will soon be putting on our Sunday table.
I thread through the crowds shuffling to buy their tickets, shuffling to their transits and trucks, and take the iron-capped stairs two at a time. Puffed when I reach the top. In two weeks that will change. In two weeks I might have worn-out shoes but by then be able to buy a pair without care. Or perhaps not. It has been a long time since I looked at the price of shoes.
Over the bridge the landscape changed, you could not even see the dominating cathedral. As you walk to the station the city becomes a gradual grey, as work beckons, but you are only minutes away from the pretty doll’s houses of our medieval streets and the statues always looking down, pitying those walking beneath them. The city I have lived all my life, the city of study, of Martin Luther, of grand culture uniquely German, and mercifully not bombed. We still had two synagogues, one the oldest in Europe, one a burned-out shell since ‘crystal night’. But no-one now to use them of course. That had happened. The same as everywhere.
All my life in Erfurt and I had never seen this part of town. Tall old buildings, last century and more. Crumbling now.
I would have been thirteen when these homes became the ghettoes. Empty now, or the homes of the adamantly unemployed and destitute drunk. Fine homes upon a time, judged only by my looking to their pediments and stonework. Still it is only a short walk, and I have nothing worth stealing, no bicycle, not even a watch – also sold – for who needs a watch with no work to go to. But sure I will be at the doors of Topf and Sons in good time, and time enough for one rolled breakfast cigarette, not knowing if Topf subscribed to the government’s ban. Trains you could still smoke on but not the trams and buses, not in public buildings.
When I was first at Erfurt University you could smoke in class, and then the rules came and soon after that my first professor, Josef Litt, was removed from class, by the Sturmabteilung, the SA no less, the chalk still in his hand as he was carried out by his elbows, half a word written on the board, never finished. Jews now not permitted to teach, to do anything in public work. We got the week off. Then we got an American professor, his German as bad as his breath, and my second year a struggle.
A right into Sorbenweg, chimneys along the skyline, already smoking, and then the long wall of Topf, a clutch of city-style houses opposite, not slums.
The administration building hides the construction factories and workshops that cover almost half a square mile. A neat front, three storey, concealing the heavy and dirty work boiling behind it, the manual workers coming in through another entrance. The smart wooden gate for suits not overalls.
A black chimney in the centre of the roof, the white letters of Topf encircling. In my eye, my draughtsman’s eye, I see the one-dimensional plan of stoves heating the floors all connecting to this chimney, the furnace in the basement, but no need for it now, not in April.
I am not nervous. My first opportunity in the workplace yet I am confident. Perhaps bolstered by Prüfer’s admiration of my qualifications, perhaps by Etta’s admiration, enthusiastically bestowed that morning, in that blue light before April dawn. Always the best time. Or perhaps confidence always wears a suit.
The woman at the desk wishes me good morning. She looks like she has been up for hours, fresh and beaming, and I am sure not the same woman I saw last week. My eyes weeping from my walk, worse because they are such a pale blue. Almost an old man’s eyes. An annoyance all my life. Too sensitive to sunlight and wind.
From the clock behind her I am five minutes early. Good, but I realise this is probably where my employers and directors also enter for their work. An anxiety about this. I would rather meet them at my desk in white-coat than in my shiny suit and worn hat.
‘Can I help you, sir?’
She asks so delightfully that I almost do not understand the words. I give her my employment letter.
‘Ernst Beck,’ I said. ‘Hired by Herr Prüfer.’
She asks me to take a seat and presses a telephone. The chairs are modern. Sweeping chrome and fine leather, more comfortable than my armchair at home. I leaf through technical magazines laid on a low glass and chrome table, one eye to the door to get ready to stand if an expensive suit approaches. But I suppose, with relief, that maybe directors and owners do not get into work so early.
I hear the clack of smart shoes coming from the marble staircase, hurried but rhythmical, like the wearer is dancing down not to meet me but Ginger Rogers.
The gleaming black wing-tips appear, then a suit I do not think I could ever afford. The cloth so black he seems fluid, floats to me like a wraith.
He held out his hand as I stood and bowed, lower than I intended.
‘Herr Beck. I am Hans Klein. So pleased to meet you,’ he ushered me to the stairs. ‘I should get you a pass for your car so it does not get mistaken.’
I do not mention that Klein is also my landlady’s name.
‘No need, Herr Klein. I only live across from the station. I walked.’
‘Oh. Really? Good. I live in Weimar myself. Not in the city. In the country. I apologise. It is my fault to assume that everyone drives to work. I suppose we have many local people here. This way, please.’ He led me up the stairs, talking effortlessly as he went with his dancer’s feet and I struggled to keep up.
‘Come to my office, Herr Beck. I will acquaint you with the nature of things. No need to worry on your first day. No-one is to expect much of you. Just relax and enjoy. This is why we start you on Thursday. Today and tomorrow you are to familiarise yourself with the department, meet everyone, and we can start you in earnest on Monday.’ We reached the third floor and he smiled as he waited for me to gain. ‘In earnest … Ernst.’ He laughed. ‘Earnest Ernst. Quite a quip, no?’
His talk as smooth as his suit.
‘Yes, sir.’ It was then I saw the lift, and he noticed, seemed pleased with my crestfallen look He was not much older but assured in exactly the same way that I am not. If I enter a bar or café I wait patiently until I am attended to. He is one who snaps his fingers and calls.
‘Ah. I forget the lift. I always take the stairs. I drive so much. I take the opportunity to exercise whenever I can. No need for you, of course, walking everywhere as you do. I am envious of you for that. Come.’
He walked beside me, his arm against my back. I tried to place where I had seen his face before, and then it came. It was in his smile. All teeth. It was Conrad Veidt, an actor, in a film I had seen as a boy. Veidt had left for America with his Jewish wife. He had terrified me as a child in a film. A man who could only grin, ear to ear after a horrible torture to his face. A Victor Hugo book. I thought it would be an adventure, like his other books. It was not. The film ran through my mind in an instant. A silent film. The first card of speech in front of me again:
‘Jester to the king. But all his jests were cruel, and all his smiles were false.’
I was to ask him about his position when we came to his frosted glass door with the gold lettering.
‘Hans Klein. Director of Operations. D IV.’
He reached across me to open the door and waved me in before him. ‘Please, Ernst. After you.’ Herr Beck now left downstairs.
He was behind his desk before I reached a chair and I stood beside it while he popped open a metal orb on his desk and dozens of cigarettes fanned out from underneath its top. He took one and an onyx table-lighter and I stood and waited for him to light it and he let me stand while he did so. Three strikes of the lighter and three puffs before he noticed me again. Camels. I could smell they were Camels. Not our cheap German Kamels but actual American. I was not sure if American Camels were black-market. Surely not. Just rare now. Expensive now.
‘Oh. Excuse my manners, Ernst. Please take a seat. I am so often on my own here – excepting meeting with Topf – that I sometimes forget myself with my staff.’
He said, ‘Topf’. Not ‘Herr Topf’.
‘Cigarette?’ He waited until I was seated to offer. I would have to stand to take one.
‘No thank you, sir.’ He closed the orb, the cigarettes drawing in magically.
‘Please. Call me Herr Klein. No formalities on my floor. Do you not smoke? I can smell it on you? Or maybe it is just from walking through the station and the streets?’
‘Yes, but I did not know whether … I did not know the rules for the building. I am so used to the ban.’
He took his black leather chair, his suit disappearing within.
‘Fortunately we are not a public building yet. I do not travel publicly so I suppose the smoking ban does not bother. Although we have many contracts with the SS so I would not smoke around them should you see them, or around Prüfer or Topf who are Party members. And you are not permitted to smoke on the draft floors or public areas.’ He leaned back, put his feet up on something I could not see and exhaled hugely. ‘Coffee?’
‘No, thank you. Unless you are having one, Herr Klein?’
‘I never drink coffee.’ He waved his cigarette. ‘I find it disagrees with my Martinis!’
That grin again. I did want coffee. I was lucky if I could afford three cups a week. To be offered it free and to turn it down. Still, my first day. Be a polite fool. These were successful men. Confident men. Not in war. Ernst Beck the young one amongst them. The apprentice. These were not people I knew, not my world.
As a boy I played football – my father’s encouragement – before the first war that was all the entertainment he had. Football a German invention to him. A game that marked towns above each other more than harvest.
I played on the wing, but would always want to be a striker, every boy did. Sometimes we would play against the boys from Weimar, the richer boys. Weimar paid for us to play. Bought our footballs, bought our kit.
‘Let them win,’ my father would say. ‘Ernst. Play the game.’ His finger stern above me, bent to me, breath like stale meat. ‘Do not be the hero. We are not here to always score goals. To win. If we always beat them too much less money they will give. Do you want to play next year or win today? What is for the better?’
The polite fool. Know what you will gain. And what you will lose. The democracy of the football match. Sometimes you cannot afford to be the best team. But you will play next year. I could have scored five times against those Weimar boys. Sometimes a goal is just a goal. Two posts without a net.
‘It is polite,’ my father would say. ‘You win by making it better for next year. By losing today. By abiding.’
I became a good German because of that. Got new kit the next year. Played the game.
‘Do you have your identification card?’ He put out his hand. I fumbled inside my jacket, gave across the rough cardboard we all hated to carry. Not obliged to carry. Preferred. It would go back in a drawer that evening. I had been asked to bring it. Normal to be copied for employment purposes.
‘Thank you, Ernst. I’ll have it back to you today.’ He did not put it away, placed it on his desk, and then it sat between us like a brick. ‘You’ll be given a worker’s pass as an alternative to use.’ He blew his smoke towards me. ‘I have looked over your qualifications. Prüfer and Sander are sure you will be competent. Understand that we have lost a great deal of men to the service over the years. We have to make do with less experienced men, but it is a great opportunity for yourself. I hope you understand?’
‘It is the opportunity I seek and am grateful for, Herr Klein. I will do my best.’ Polite fool.
‘You will have to. These recent months we are often using prisoners from the camps, from Buchenwald, so the plans are ever simpler and of cheaper construction for them to comprehend. Still, the labour is cheap.’ He put out his stub that I would consider not done. ‘I believe that Sander – you will meet him tomorrow – is most looking forward for you to work on his new designs. They are patented but need … clarifying. To be presented to the SS. His originals are too complicated for the layman. We need someone to present them efficiently and more simplified. With our shortened workforce all our best draughtsmen are working on the malt works and silos and they have been with the designs for years so that is where our best men need to be. Which is why we have hired yourself, Ernst.’
I straightened in my seat.
‘Am I not to be working for the silo department?’
‘No. Sander is our chief designer for the crematoria. My department. “Special Ovens.” Our smallest department. The smallest part of our business. But we are one of the foremost in the world. And getting ever busier, thanks to the SS. The more camps they build the more ovens they need. And because they want them so cheap they are always wanting repairs. Repeat business. The best business. Prüfer and the engineers are always fixing something at Auschwitz or Buchenwald and beyond. I limit myself to Buchenwald if I can.’ He stood and I followed. ‘Come. I will show you the floor. Not the floor with the skylights I’m afraid. That is for our top draughtsmen. But the second floor is pleasant enough. There is a fine view of the hills. All day you can see the smoke from Buchenwald rising to them. It is a pleasant room.’ His hand on my back again, his other already on the door.
I did not know how to mention the ovens to Etta at dinner.
Bern sausage, sauerkraut and swede. Etta put the meal on the table with pride. Pride for me.
‘Ernst, we should see your parents this weekend. Celebrate your good news now it is official.’
I found an orchestra on our ‘people’s radio’. No long-wave any more and you paid two marks a month to listen to Wagner or Kraus. As a boy we used to have these great jazz stations. My mother and father danced then. Waltzed around the floor amid my electric train set that never truly worked but that I pretended did should my father punish me for breaking it. All other music gone now, all too degenerate for our sensibilities. The kids still listen somehow. A black-market in music they record on their Tonfolien machines and share. Swing-kids. That is what we call them. You cannot keep kids from music, no matter how black you think it is. Our leaders forget that’s how they came to be. Older people told them ‘no’ once too. They should be proud of the youth emulating them. And I have to listen to Wagner.
‘My parents? You want to put that upon us on a Sunday?’ I sat at the table. Wished I had wine.
‘It’s been months since we saw them. At least now we have something to see them for instead of just borrowing money.’ A snipe at me? No, she was smiling. I do not think she meant to offend. Just married talk. ‘Don’t you want them to be proud?’
‘And why not? You are in a company in wartime. Would they rather you were at the front?’
I was at university, had missed conscription. And Erfurt had no military attachment or demand for young men to serve. Too deep in the country for administration then. The first war different. Men had come from the forests to fight, my father amongst. Someone considered that if the enemy were faced with these giant axe-wielders they would drop their guns and run. Not now. These were the places that needed to be protected. We were the Germans of Germany. The heart that the rest fought for. The war distant from us, protected by mountains of pine bastions like a great wall. During the summer those who were students in Berlin or Munich would be deployed as medics to the front. Imagine being shot and having a geography student patch you up? I guess stabs of morphine would be their limit. Pat his chest in sympathy and then move on to the next. It was what those students saw at the front that began the protests when they returned to their universities. Their last protests.
Our city almost distinct from the war. The war heading east. A Russian war. The West done now. Africa and the Mediterranean ours. Victory assured. Normality coming back. My job a sign of that. Normality. New cars on the streets and the trains running on time. Klein had shown me his new Opel before I left. I do not know why. To me a car is just a car but I suppose these things are important to certain men. He lifted the engine’s cover.
‘Look at the plate.’ He had placed his hand on the engine to introduce it. ‘A General Motors engine! Ford and General Motors supplying German cars. We cannot all afford Mercedes! And we have their American engines in our army trucks. I wonder how the Yankee soldiers feel when they discover this. They bomb a supply convoy and find American engines in the trucks. That must be a kick! And we even sell them our ovens for their own prison camps. Topf are the largest exporter of crematoria. Not that we ever had any Jewish business. The Jew does not approve of crematoria.’ That grin again. ‘The body is only borrowed to them. It must be returned as given. Enjoy your walk home. Tomorrow you will meet Sander so shine your shoes better.’ He slapped my back. ‘Soon you will have your own car, no?’
‘Etta, I must tell you something.’ My cutlery still on the table. Her face became too concerned or maybe it was the look on mine.
‘What is it, Ernst?’
‘It seems that for the time … for the moment … as I am the new man … I must begin work on the second floor. Under Herr Klein.’
‘The second floor? What is that? You are not working on the silos?’
‘No. The second floor is for the Special Ovens Department. Special designs.’
‘Special? How are they special?’
I took my fork, ate into the mash, the meat too steaming to eat for a while. We often eat one after the other, Etta first. I have to let my food cool, like a child, otherwise my night will be just heartburn and milk.
‘Furnaces and incinerators for the prison camps. I’ll know more tomorrow when I meet Herr Sander.’
‘Aren’t the prisons run by the SS? You don’t have to work with them, do you?’
‘Herr Klein says I might meet them in the building. They are only officers, Etta.’
She ate slow.
‘I know. But it is just when you say SS you think of Gestapo. It is so quiet here. To think that just across the tracks there are SS. Here.’
In the single bulb light over our table her face had lowered as she ate, as if reading the tablecloth like a book in a library. I had never heard her mention the SS or Gestapo at our table before. This not dinner talk. A husband’s duty to ease his wife’s concerns.
‘I am to make the designs simpler for them to understand. Label everything. They won’t understand the Alphabet of Lines so I must make it clear.’
‘You do not think of the prisons needing ovens.’ Her voice almost too quiet for me to catch.
‘It is just like hospitals and schools. You need ovens for refuse, for heat, for the dead. No-one likes to think that hospitals have crematoria. Anywhere you have large numbers of sick people you need crematoria.’
Her fork rang against her plate.
‘Ernst! I am eating! Why are you always using that word?’
‘Etta, I am working for a company that makes crematoria. For all the world. I am going to be using that word often if you want me to talk on my day. If you consider it correctly it is probably one of the most important subjects. Paul almost holds it as a religion. It has laws.’
The mention of Paul, our crematorist friend in Weimar seemed to lighten the air. I had an ally. Not a conspirator. Paul’s business could not exist without furnaces. This she would have to concede. Just a business. That’s all.
‘Well … use a different word. Say “oven”. That sounds better. And stop talking about the dead. There is no place for that in this house. And certainly not at my table.’
I apologised. Moved the talk to visiting my parents. Agreed to it. They lived on the Krämerbrücke, the Merchants’ Bridge, in the medieval part of the city. The house I was born in. The houses on the bridge itself. On stormy nights I was always terrified in my bed that we would collapse into the river. Etta’s parents had moved to Switzerland with her sister when the Americans joined the war. They feared invasion. We travelled there to get married. Etta insisted that her mother should see her wed and her father should take her arm. My own parents not attending. They do not travel. My father does not leave the bridge. All the stores he needs are there, he says. All his friends are there, he says.
‘Why do I have to meet strangers?’ he would shrug. ‘I have met and outlived everyone I ever need to.’ And he laughed at the passing of his friends.
We finish our supper, turn down the radio and the light. Tomorrow I meet Herr Sander. Too anxious to make love and we go to sleep just holding each other, the beds pushed together. My brain will not sleep and I try to imagine what Sander will look like.
‘Ernst?’ Etta whispers above my head under hers. ‘I am glad I did not have to work tonight. It was good to eat together.’
I sighed into her chest and pulled her tighter. Her hair on my cheek. Red hair smells different. It blooms of youth somehow, like newborns in their close perfume.
‘Ernst? The SS wouldn’t look into us would they? If you are working with them?’ A tension in her hold of me, as if I was about to be pulled out of bed and away. I touched her hand, felt it calm.
‘I’m not working with them. I work for Topf.’ I lifted my head. ‘Why? Do I have a criminal I should worry about?’
She pulled me back to her breast. ‘No! Do I have a criminal to worry about?’
‘I have a receipt from your father for you. I could ask for an exchange.’ She held me closer.
‘You wish you could afford me.’
And the night came, the blackout, the sleep of couples.
Raining the second day. Not the best walk. Raincoat and umbrella at least and Topf had a cloakroom where they might dry by the end of the day, as long as the day were longer than yesterday; not much more than a tour of the floors, the factory and barrack buildings where the workers from the camps ate a meal before the transport back to Buchenwald.
I had thought of Herr Sander all night. He the chief signatory of the design departments. Outside of the ownership of the company – the Topf brothers – the man in charge. I wondered what he might be like. A good boss or a hard one. I was sure all men only rise if they were the latter. My father would come home from Moor’s pharmacy every night and be quiet for the first half-hour. Some wine and a sandwich before dinner and he would begin to talk and smile again. Sundays he would spend sighing and devouring the newspaper. I do not think he enjoyed his work. The pharmacy had to sell up in ’35 to German buyers, the Jewish owners no longer permitted to be part of the community. I remember before then going as a boy with my mother to take my father his lunch one Saturday. We came out and a young man handed us both a leaflet. My mother paled as she read and the young man tipped his hat at us, went along with a whistle. The leaflet Gothic in script and tone.
‘You have just been photographed while you have been buying Jewish. You are going to be shamed in public.’
We had not bought anything. We were bringing my father his meal but the man did not know. My mother whisked me away in the opposite direction. Spat her words.
‘These bastards.’ She was pulling me along now. ‘Never trust a man in a suit, Ernst. He only wishes to lend you money or take it from you.’
I recall that my father was just as unhappy with his new employers as the old ones.
Prüfer I perceived to be a good man. He smiled, made jokes, he asked after my university. He was an engineer, had started at the bottom with Topf and determined his way to become a head man. He was pleased I had no children.
‘They interfere with a man’s career,’ he said. ‘Wait until you are a director! Children are a vice to a man’s promise when he is young.’
Fritz Sander did not offer a handshake. He nodded when Herr Klein introduced me in his office and I returned the nod as proficiently as his own. I had my white-coat now, my blond hair smoothed back with Etta’s pomade. It felt like I was at work. That I almost belonged.
‘Has Herr Klein detailed your work here?’ His answer already known.
‘Yes, sir. The Special Ovens Department.’ They were both standing, hands behind their back and I put mine the same.
‘It is important work, Topf has secured the contracts for all ovens for the prisons.’ I saw his skin was raw around his moustache and neck. A shaving rash like all of us except for Klein’s talcum smoothness. Even the wealthy had trouble getting good blades I supposed. But Sander’s grey hair was closely cut, precision sharp around his ears. He did not get his cut by his wife in a kitchenette with sewing scissors. A waft of Bay Rum as he moved.
‘The regular muffle ovens have become inadequate. They break. Operated by inexperienced men. And they are overworked. We are able to supply mobile counterparts and engineers to repair but new ones must be built. I have hired you to help me prepare the drafts.’
I opened my mouth to speak but he anticipated.
‘You need not know anything about crematoria. I just need you to replicate the drafts from the designs. For SS approval. Any aspect you do not understand can be put to Herr Klein or Herr Keller on the third floor for annotation. The designs are to be as clear as possible for a layman.’
I had prepared questions as I slept, in my dreams. Questions that an ambitious man might ask.
‘These new designs will improve the process, sir?’
His eyes now smaller through his glasses.
‘How do you mean?’
‘That Topf is superior throughout the world for crematoria. I’m sure we are improving all the while. I am honoured to be a part of such endeavour.’
Sander half-turned, hands opening and closing at his back.
‘These contracts were won on price not quality.’ He turned back to me sharply. ‘You know our closest competitor?’
‘Kori of Berlin, sir.’
‘Quite so. We beat a Berlin company because of our price and location.’
Klein lifted his hand for my attention. Spoke proudly.
‘And that when the call came we installed mobile systems into Mauthausen within a day. That is service,’ he said.
‘Mobile systems, sir?’ I had heard this word previously, jumped on it now.
‘Stock items,’ Klein said. ‘For farmers, small abattoirs and such, who do not need their own scale furnace. Petrol fired. The incinerators had broken and they needed an emergency replacement. We fulfilled where Berlin could not.’
Sander raised a finger to me and then to Klein. ‘That reminds. Herr Klein is going to Buchenwald. A site visit. Monday. It would be useful for you to attend.’
I inhaled, stalled.
‘To the prison?’
‘We are measuring for new muffles,’ Sander said as reply. ‘It would be useful for you to see our work first hand. It is important for an architect to see the fulfilment of his task. You will learn much.’
I would like to say that I feigned enthusiasm. But I was curious in that pedestrian way people stare at accidents or listen to a neighbour’s fight or as a child you try to peek a look into the butcher’s back room as he emerges when his bell rings, wiping his hands and beaming at your mother.
And this my work after all.
‘That would be most interesting, sir.’
‘Good,’ Sander nodded again. ‘Be sure to bring your identification.’
Before supper Etta and I went for a walk. The early evening dry and warm, my coat only a little still damp from the morning’s rain. We went arm in arm by the river, towards the bridges and the old quarter. Etta had asked what Sander was like, how my day had been. I volunteered the walk. Easier to tell her outside.
‘The camp!’ Etta stopped walking, pulled her arm away. Stragglers coming home scowled from beneath their caps.
‘The prison, Etta. Buchenwald is well established. Topf has hundreds of workers from the place in the factory.’
‘Slaves you mean.’
‘Labour for their crimes.’
‘But Ernst, it is a camp. People die there. There is disease. Dangerous men.’
I took her arm again and strolled slower.
‘Klein and the engineers go there often. I am sure it is safe.’
‘I don’t like it. Why did you say you would go?’
‘I could hardly refuse on my second day.’ We walked into the cobbled streets, a walk around the block to take us back to Station Street. Quiet here. The Jewish businesses closed and sold to develop into apartments, but that had stopped. The developers no doubt waiting for the war to end any month now and the prices to rise. But even with the boarded-up windows a nice peaceful stroll in April.
‘Do you like this Herr Klein?’
‘I do not know him. Does it matter? He’s the head of the floor. When the war ends a few of those who used to work there may come back. Part of their service is to retain their old jobs. I must do well before then. Everything I can.’
‘Will you have to join the Party?’
‘No-one has mentioned. Prüfer wears a pin. A standard one. Herr Sander did not. Nor Klein.’
‘Would you? Would you join?’
I do not know why I did not think before answering. It seemed natural to say it.
‘If it helped my career. For you. For us. All other business ties are gone. No Freemasons or Rotaries. How else do you get on?’
We said no more on this.
If you live near to your parents you walk slower to meet them for Sunday lunch than if you had to get on a train where at least you can pretend that something enjoyable is happening. The slow walk, lingering around shop windows, all to avoid the dreaded hour. The walk enlivened by the Sunday street all looking to the sky as a squadron of Heinkels flew west overhead. Our skies normally silent.
Etta shielded her eyes to watch.
‘Where do you think they are going?’
‘I don’t know. England? Early for a raid. Where from is more interesting. I did not know we had bases in the east.’
‘Perhaps the Russians have surrendered. And we have taken their bases.’
‘Do they even have bases to take? I thought them all farmers?’
She slapped my arm. ‘Ernst. They are an army. I’m sure they have planes.’
‘We conquered France didn’t we? And they have toilets inside their homes. The Russians?’ I cocked my thumb over my shoulder. ‘Toilet behind the house with chickens in it. That is all you need to know.’
The streets animated again and we came to the old bridge. You may know the Merchants’ Bridge from songs or pictures from a Christmas butter-biscuit box. A fairytale place. One of the last medieval bridges in Europe that still had the colourful houses and shops built right on its stone. Paris and London had lost theirs hundreds of years ago. Erfurt maintained. We know our history. It is still here. England does not know us to bomb. Their bridge fell down, as the song would have it. Because they did not care enough for history.
I was born on this bridge. The vaults and steps above the Breitstrom waters were my hiding places as a boy or where I crouched concealed from the wrath of my father’s open hand.
I thought we were poor to live here, our house so small and ancient, but no, despite the small leaning buildings looking into each other’s lives we were privileged. I would be happy to inherit it, as my father had from his father, if only to sell it and buy a proper home for Etta and our children. My son would not live in a box of a room with straw-packed walls and no window. Our front door would not open onto stairs to take him to a floor above a camera shop.
My father opened the door, his once blond hair now yellow and grey but still thick with vitality, like the whole of him.
‘Ernst! Etta!’ He hugged Etta and scolded me. ‘Why did you not let us know you were coming? What boy does this?’ Neither of us had a telephone. I suppose he wanted me to shout from our window. ‘We have nothing in.’ This my fault, and not true. When my parents died there would be two small plots for them and a mausoleum for their food. They were of the great war. When there were real shortages not just rationed ones. The habit of hoarding jars and cans, pickling everything, not given up. Just in case. I was born the year my father came back from the war. I stacked tins like other children stacked blocks.
The creaking stairs, my mother’s voice howling from the kitchen.
‘Etta! Ernst! Why you not let us know! My hair, Willi! My hair!’ She clutched at her head. It was in exactly the same clipped bun it had been since my youth.
I took off my hat and Etta’s coat as my mother fussed and my father reminded me that I had not joined the church football club for yet another year.
‘I am hoping I won’t have time for football soon enough.’
My mother clasped her face. ‘Oh Willi! She is pregnant! She is pregnant!’
Etta waved her down. ‘No, no, Frau Beck! The news is all for Ernst.’
‘Let them sit, Mila,’ my father pulling out glasses and Madeira. ‘What is it, Ernst? You have not signed for the army?’
The glasses to the white paper tablecloth with the cherries decoration. The same tablecloth as when I lived here. My crayon marks still on it.
‘No, Papa. Better. I have a job.’
He took our coats. ‘A draughtsman? A real job. You hear this, Mama?’
Her hands had not left her face. ‘Oh, Ernst! My boy!’ And then the hands were on my face. ‘My clever boy! When did this happen? How?’
My father poured wine. The Madeira meant it was Mama’s pickled pot roast for dinner. I cannot drink more than one glass of the sickly stuff but I would wait to see if a beer would come. Sunday after all.
‘So, you can start paying me back at last!’
‘Willi!’ My mother dropped my face. ‘Let the boy sit. Give them some wine. Let him talk.’
The wine in the thin glasses was already in our hands, Etta’s knees against mine on the small sofa, the same seat where I once put my little cars to bed before myself.
‘Topf and Sons were hiring. A junior position but—’
‘Of course. Why not?’ My father lifted his hands as if bargaining for a rug in a bazaar. ‘That is how men start. A year or two and you will have your own department.’ He slapped my knee.
My mother sat and tightened her shawl. ‘Topf, you say? My, my. Such a fine company.’
Father saluted his glass.
‘The oldest firm. The proudest. The world will open to you now. What are you working at, Ernst? Or is it secret?’ Eyed me in a way I had not seen before.
‘Why would it be secret?’
‘Maybe they have some war works or such.’
I drank my syrupy wine.
‘They have contracts with the prisons. And for military parts.’
Etta touched my hand. Patted it.
‘Ernst is, unfortunately, only working on new oven designs for the camps.’ Not looking at me. At my mother. I took my hand away. ‘Unfortunately,’ she had said.
My mother’s shawl tighter.
‘The camps?’ Her voice as a whisper. ‘Buchenwald?’
‘All of them,’ I said, let Etta’s disparaging of me pass. She had suggested this visit. I thought because of pride in her husband. Maybe she had hoped a different reaction from my parents about the camp. ‘I am to work on new patents.’
‘New?’ My father nodded sagely over his glass. ‘You see, Mama? They give him new projects to work on.’ And then straight to it. ‘How much does it pay? Salary? Not week?’
‘Forty marks a week. No trial. I have already started. May I smoke, Mama?’
She stood. ‘I must get to my roast.’ I took that as yes and brought out my tobacco, and father’s pipe came from the drawer by his chair.
‘Let me help you, Mila.’ And the men were alone.
An age for my father to suck his pipe into life. The sound of my childhood.
‘Ernst.’ He shook out his match into the glazed ashtray I made him at school. ‘Tell me about the ovens?’
I exhaled with him.
‘Topf created crem—’ Etta’s ear turned. ‘Created ovens for use in chapel, in ceremony. They invented the petrol oven and the gas fuelled. They export all over the world. But the prisons use coke for cost. As such I understand they need repairs. Often.’
I watched the cloud of him reach to the yellow-stained ceiling.
‘Overuse. Brick ovens. Typhus is in the prisons. Coke ovens and brick are not able to cope with the demand.’
‘So why use coke?’
‘Cost. Petrol is too expensive. Too crucial to waste on ovens. The SS are all about cost I gather.’
He leant forward.
‘You know they run the camps?’
‘I did not think they bought the ovens?’
I drew long on my cigarette. ‘Nor did I. I have learnt that much already.’
‘That is what you must do. Learn every day. Ask everything. Show that it is more than just a job. And then when they are looking for the next top man they will look for the one who shows the most interest in the company. He drummed his words out on the arm of his chair. ‘That is the way.’
‘I am doing something on that tomorrow. I am going to Buchenwald with my department head to inspect for a new oven.’ I looked to Etta not smiling at me from the kitchen.
He put his pipe on his knee.
‘You are going inside the camp?’
My mother’s voice. ‘Who is? Who is going to the camp?’
‘Ernst is, Mama,’ my father called over his shoulder. ‘Ernst is going to Buchenwald. Tomorrow.’
She came into the room, drying her hands. Always drying her hands.
‘Why? Do you have to work in the camps? That is not so good, Ernst.’
Erfurt not far from Buchenwald. The prison almost ten years old but known for disease now, for more than criminals. To my mother even the air of the place would be corrupt.
‘No, Mama. It is just to view on-site the work that we do. It will be good experience.’
Etta gone from the kitchen doorway. I heard the tap running. Running louder as my father spoke. His pipe neck pointing at me.
‘And it will show how keen you are to learn. When I worked for Littman, at the pharmacy, that man would teach me nothing. Nothing I tell you. Everything was a secret to him. I was too old to apprentice so to him I was worthless. When Quermann took it over, when a German took it over, he showed me true respect. A gentile cannot work for a Jew. You just become their chattel. I have always said it. Now it is Germany for the Germans we all look after each other. Nothing to gain but a better country for us all. Working together for the good. Not for the purse.’
Mother slapped him with her cloth that was always attached about her.
‘It was Littman who gave you that job, you old fool! Me running around scrubbing floors with Ernst in my belly and you with holes in your pockets. Quermann did not hire you. You were stolen.’ She groaned back to the kitchen. ‘That man, that man.’
I finished my wine and the bottle came back, which was a first for him.
‘All the same,’ he went on. ‘You learn from these men, Ernst. They are doing well. Government contracts. Always there is work there. When we conquer Stalin think how much work will be needed.’
‘The ovens is a small department, Papa. But they design silos and malting equipment. And gas jets and aeroplane parts. That is what I want to do.’
‘And why not? Mercedes you could work for. Build me a car for my old age. This country is for the young now. My war gave us a broken country. The Bolsheviks and the Jews conspiring to destroy us. Nothing but unemployment unless you were in their families. And now it is Germany for the Germans, the best men for the jobs, not just for the good connections. And my son has a career with one of the largest companies in the land.’ He thumped his chair. ‘This is how good life begins. I am proud of you, Ernst.’
He had not said these words since I had graduated.
Women were laughing in the kitchen, and the waft of steaming food came from rattling pots, and I would not have to ask awkwardly to borrow ten marks. I realised it could be good to visit parents.
We walked home arm in arm through afternoon light burnishing the wet cobblestones. I waited until the river’s rushing was behind us to ask Etta why she had called my work ‘unfortunate’.
‘I only meant that you should be doing higher things. Not drafting ovens. For the SS.’ Her head down now, moved close into me. ‘Not what I want for you.’
‘I’m sure it will not be for long.’
She stopped, looked about and took my hand.
‘But what if it is? What if it is for long? Do you not think of the ovens, Ernst? Why they need so many?’
‘The typhus. The disease. The sick. Prisons need ovens, Etta. I’ve told you this. It is unpleasant but it is fact. Would you question Paul buying a new oven?’
‘Coal ovens. Yet you tell me they order gas jets from Topf. What are they for if not for the ovens, Ernst? Do they not heat with coal?’
‘I don’t know. It is not just Topf, Etta. What company does not work with the SS now? Would you be concerned if a hospital wanted gas jets?’
She dropped my hand, put hers to my back as Klein did when he wanted me to understand something, guided me along.
‘But hospitals aren’t run by the SS, Ernst. Why are the camps run by them? Shouldn’t that be a government thing?’
The beer and wine flushed on me. A temper at defending my work. Now. Before my first pay.
‘Do you not want me to work? You were the one who wanted to go to my parents to celebrate. Now you want to deride my employers? Nothing happens in this world, Etta, unless someone sells something to someone else. Nothing.’ I walked on, left her behind me until her voice came.
‘I’m sorry, Ernst,’ she said. ‘Ernst?’ Like a charm. Holding me to the street.
I turned back to look at her framed in the sun. She walked out of it to me. Took my arm again.
‘I’m very proud of you. For you. Maybe it’s that you are going to the camp tomorrow. I’m worried. For you. I am being foolish.’
We walked on.
‘I promise you,’ I said, calm now, ‘I won’t do anything for you to worry.’
‘Here. Put this on.’
Monday morning. We were in Hans Klein’s black Opel on the main road outside Kleinmolsen, the groan of the wipers unable to cope with the sheets of rain but Klein did not slow his speed. I could feel the water on the road hitting the panelling like waves. The tyres almost skating along. He had taken his hand off the wheel to pass me a Party pin.
It was plain tin, not enamelled. I did not question and put it on my lapel. His was enamelled and, again, as we slid along the road, he put it on with one hand.
‘It does not hurt to wear it,’ he said. ‘Gives a good impression. I am personally not political. Yourself?’
‘No, sir. I have not given it much thought.’
‘Prüfer is of course. And the Topfs. But then they would have to be dealing with the SS. Are you a union man?’
My interview had contained this question. The usual standard. ‘Are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party?’
Who would say, ‘yes’?
‘Are not unions banned?’
He nodded, managed to light a cigarette with one hand.
‘I’m sure that some of our workers are members of the KPD. Communists. And the SDP. There was a faction of them at the factory in the 30s. I think the Buchenwald workers are influencing ours. The camp is nothing but communists. I’m sure Sander is on top of it. But keep your own ear out and let me know if you hear anything. I will make you my top boy on the floor!’ He shifted a gear down at last. ‘I cannot trust the old ones.’
The countryside blurred past. Twenty minutes in the roaring car, a super-six, and Klein showed it off. Twenty minutes. A camp a short drive from Erfurt and Weimar. I had only been in taxis before and probably only half a dozen times in my life. I did not appreciate cars, or watches, shoes and suits, but I was beginning to think that Klein thought such things impressive.
‘It is a nice car, Herr Klein.’ I looked around as if it was the Sistine Chapel, trying to admire it as we rolled across the railway line, the rail that led to the camp.
‘Twenty-five hundred marks,’ he said for reply. I imagine that is how he judged the world. The price of things. He pivoted the car between a gap in the forest with just a gear change, no brakes, and I was braced against the door.
A good gravelled road, the beech forest cut back from it with maintained grass all along. Buchenwald. Beech Tree Forest. A name for holidays. As the camp came in sight, set in a clear plain, the rain slowed, I wiped the condensation from the window, sure that I had seen men outside, outside on the grass. They were cutting the grass, had stopped to watch the car. Mowing in the rain. Their garb unmistakeable.
‘There are prisoners out there?’ I looked at him. My professor now. ‘Outside the prison?’
Klein did not even check.
‘Of course. Why not?’
‘But might they not escape?’
‘Where would they go? What would they do? Escape to starve? To be shot? Not everyone is the Count of Monte Cristo, Ernst. Some men know they belong in prison. Some men know they do not like work. Career criminals. Why escape one prison for another? Why buy your own bed and food when we can buy it for them.’ He put his arm across me to point to an outcrop of rocks not far from the barbed fence. ‘They even have a zoo. Bears, monkeys, birds of prey. You could take kids here. Although the zoo is for the guards of course. The prisoners have a cinema and theatre. A brothel for the non-Jews.’
He closed the car down the gears as we approached the gated walls. All the roads leading off the main marked by decorative wooden signs, this one, the road to the main gate designated ‘Caracho Road’ – Caracho Spanish for ‘double-time’ – decorated with four swarthy-looking men hunched and hurrying close together in prison clothes. Some of the prisoners here would have been from the Spanish war. The building like a factory except for barbed wire instead of walls. A red-timbered building like a Swiss chalet sat atop the entrance, a balcony all around, a clock above, a flagpole rising out of it. The flag just a red swathe. Beaten by the rain. Taller than this I could see the square tower of the crematoria, to the right of the gate, almost opposite the odd zoo. Not far from the main building. Good. We would not have to go deep into the camp.
Klein reached to the back seat, passed me his briefcase as we waited for the guards to come.
‘You take the notes. I will measure and photograph. I have my own Leica. Better than Sander’s Zeiss he would have you use. One hundred it cost me.’
The latticed door in the gate opened. Words were written in the iron tops but I could not make them out. They were reversed. To be read from the other side only. A black-painted slogan on the stucco wall above the gate read to those who approached:
‘RIGHT OR WRONG THIS IS MY COUNTRY.’
A grey uniform and box-cap stepped through, his jacket instantly dappled with the rain.
Klein stubbed out his cigarette.
‘You have your identification, Ernst?’ His window opened. I passed the card and Klein gave the guard his grin with our papers.
‘Good to see you again, Simon. Pity about the rain, eh?’
Simon smiled back but became stern when he looked at our cards. This was his purpose. His moment. It would be his hand that waved the gate open.
‘We are here to meet the Senior-Colonel,’ Klein said without being asked. ‘About new ovens. Another breakdown, eh?’
‘All the time.’ Simon handed back our cards. ‘Build a better one for us.’
‘Pay us more money, eh?’ Klein winked.
A circus going on around me. A joviality incongruous to what was about to happen. I was outside a prison. About to go within. I had never handed a soldier my identification before. I could only see his holster from my view in the car, another guard watching from the gate with a rifle slung. To see them so close. The shape of a gun hidden by leather a few feet from my eyes. I was in a dream. Klein knew an SS soldier’s name and had asked him for more money. An anxious dream. A little nausea, from this scene or the chicory coffee of my breakfast. Not even an oat biscuit in the house to settle my stomach.
Klein’s window closed and the gates opened. The Opel into gear. As usual he noticed or sensed everything.
‘Don’t worry, Ernst. It is quite natural to be nervous around soldiers. And prisons. You will get used to it.’ He leaned over, grinned. ‘As long as you are not forced to get used to it, eh?’
We parked on the left. There were trucks beyond the gate, waiting for their work detail and then another strange sight to add to my dream.
There was a full band in the courtyard, an orchestra almost, dressed in red trousers and green vests. Tubas and horns, even a man with a great drum on his chest like a circus parade. We got out and Klein grinned at me over the roof of the car.
‘Ah. We are in time for the band. This is good, Ernst. Every morning and evening they sing the camp song.’
I could not stop myself blinking, waking from my dream.
‘Of course. Pride in their camp. Good for morale.’
The rain gone fully now and the brass of the band glistened from it, some of the band conscientious enough to wipe their instruments with their sleeves, proud of them, did not wipe their own faces. Their box-caps flat on their heads where they had stood in the downpour.
I flinched to the sound of loudspeakers along the fence crackling into life, the distinct sound of needle scratching record.
Trumpets and oboes blared, a fast drum beat. I would almost call it a ‘swing’ tune as the crash of cymbals came in and Zarah Leander’s voice came tinnily out.
‘To Me You’re Beautiful’ the song. I did not know if the colonel in the red-framed building knew it but this had originally been a music-hall Yiddish song. No. Maybe he did know.
The jolly song used instead of a klaxon. Hundreds of men were coming from huts like bees from a hive. The mass of them terrifying and I stepped back to the security of the steel car and Klein laughed at my reaction.
‘This is just the main camp-men. The work details. With the sub-camps there are almost sixty thousand here. Filthy. Diseased. Typhus. Do not worry, it is clean here. This is the good side.’
I could only stare. The only word for it. Stared. For such a sight. There was something familiar in it. Something I could not place. In the bones of us perhaps. Such sights.
The song came to its end, the men accustomed to timing themselves to assemble in the square before the finish, packed in the square, not an inch between them, and then a prisoner stepped from the band, came to the front. The conductor.
I was watching a conductor at eight in the morning in a prison. A captive audience of hundreds, a choir of hundreds. I began to smile myself, with Klein, to smile as at elephants or bears performing for handfuls of nuts. In absurdity. To not think how the elephants or bears are trained. It was if this were for us, for Klein and myself. But no. This happened every day. Twice a day. Their roll call. They did not even know we were here.
The band began. A martial tune, not like the record, a rousing powerful song, the type used as food for starving soldiers to forget their holed boots and damp socks. But the voices were not rousing, they were dulled and low like a warped record winding down, exactly as Zarah Leander’s wasn’t. The counter of her voice.
‘Here,’ Klein said. ‘They like this bit. Watch them stand straighter.’
It was the chorus. One line in it that came stronger than a mumble. Something on once being free from prison walls.
‘They wrote the song themselves,’ Klein tapped the roof of his car. ‘Ten marks to the composer. A competition. That is quite impressive, no? Every camp has a song. And they beat those who do not sing well enough – which is bad, but it is their song. They should sing it proud. They voted for it. Come.’
We walked away from the car and I remembered to look at the gate with the backwards writing, for those facing it on the inside.
‘TO EACH HIS OWN’.
Klein watched me read it. Saw everything. Always.
‘It means, “You get what you deserve.” And don’t we all, Ernst? At the end. And at the beginning, if you are lucky enough. And work well.’ He waved me to the stairs, to the wooden building above the gatehouse. Guards and their machine-guns walking around the balcony.
‘This is the main guard tower. We passed the commandant’s quarters along the road but Pister likes to breakfast with his men. Likes to hear the song. Walk smarter, Ernst. You are to meet a colonel!’
The marching tune ended. The roll call begun. Zarah Leander again, quieter this time for the guards to hear the names.
This like my first day at school. Bewildering, fearful. I could only think of telling Etta of it, as telling my mother of my first day with my teacher and the strange new children. The strangeness, my clothes even out of place against the stripes of prison suits, stripes of barbed wire and the gates. No walls, electric wired fences. Green freedom just beyond, in sight all around. Bears tumbling each other in a zoo. My first day.
Senior-Colonel Pister opened the chalet door himself. I did not know what I expected but not the portly, white-haired man in red sweater and red braces above his SS trousers. If it were not April, if not for his lack of beard, I might have just met St Nick.
A wood stove, the smell of coffee and bacon warming the room. I was jarred for a moment, almost hiding behind Klein as Pister welcomed us against the sound of names being barked in the square below.
Pister’s arms opened wide as if to embrace.
‘How are you, Hans?’
‘Very well, Colonel.’
Klein negated, defeated, Pister’s open arms with a handshake, his left hand on Pister’s arm, drawing Pister’s hand into the shake. ‘I am so glad we managed to catch the song.’
The ‘we’ directed to me and that was how I was introduced and how I realised Klein controlled rooms. He did not wait for Pister to ask who he had brought, he did not reciprocate Pister’s embrace but initiated his own and I tried to recall if he had done the same to me, and then I saw that his hand was on Pister’s back, gently, and this I recalled, and the pace up the stairs on my first day. Keep up, keep up.
Keep up. Klein’s way. Keep up with me. Or I will leave you all behind. A trick. You could not keep up. He would not let you, and he did it so naturally you would never notice. My only insight. Seeing him do it to someone else.
Pister took my hand. ‘Welcome to Buchenwald, Herr Beck.’
Klein spoke for me.
‘Herr Beck is new to Topf. Our new draughtsman. He has never seen a prison before. I am pleased he can see it under your command, Colonel. Rather than before.’
Pister’s face saddened.
‘Ah, yes, Herr Beck. I inherited a sorry place I can tell you. Now, to business, gentlemen.’ He bid us to sit, offered the percolated coffee. Klein had told me in his office that he did not drink coffee, and, in truth, he did not touch it other than to dip a biscuit Pister had given as the names still came loudly from outside and men with guns walked past the windows.
Pister bemoaned the ovens.
He wanted a six-muffle oven, six doors, to increase capacity. The reduction of matter too much for the old set. A new oven. The old three-door model broke down too often. Was never meant to work so hard. It would have to be replaced.
‘I will not return to using just pits like my predecessor. That is animal work.’
I was taking the notes. Needed clarification. Klein’s jaw clenched when I spoke.
‘Why do the ovens break, Colonel?’
Pister sat back in his red leather armchair. With his black boots and red sweater his Christmas look almost completed. I waited for him to pat his knee for me to sit upon.
‘We have a high death rate here. The other camps send only their sick and old to us. We are more morgue than prison. The healthy stock comes from the Sinti and Roma, and the POWs. When I can get them.’
Klein snapped his biscuit.
‘Building a new oven, Colonel, will take a month. Herr Prüfer will have to build it and Herr Sander would have to sign it off. And I can tell you, Colonel, that Prüfer will not build a new oven for less than sixty thousand marks.’
‘That is preposterous,’ Pister said. ‘Nonsense.’ Christmas no more.
‘Nevertheless. We could replace some of the bricks in the existing oven, add one more three-muffle, which would only take two weeks, and provide you with mobile ovens in the meantime to maintain your conversion rates. That we could do for forty thousand marks.’
‘Bah!’ Pister shooed his arm at Klein. ‘I have had these mobile ovens before. They are too slow in the open. I am not burning pigs.’ He leaned forward. ‘I do not think any of you ever understand. There are more than sixty thousand prisoners here. A third of them are sick.’ He raised a finger.
‘And do not forget this is a prison. We have thousands of criminals here. Real criminals. This is where the murderers come. They are controlled by the ovens.’
‘How are they controlled by the ovens?’ I spoke without thinking. Idiot. Fool. Pretended not to see Klein’s glare.
Pister tapped his temple.
‘In the head, Herr Beck. You control them in the head. When you have broken ovens they know they cannot be shot. They see no smoke. Or even if only one is working they know you are not going to add to the pile of dead you already have with a couple more. So, murders and thefts increase. Every day the ovens are broken there is more crime, more disorder. And when they rob, they kill, because again that will add to the pile that they know you will not add them to. It is exasperating.’ He looked hard at Klein.
‘That is why I need a six-door oven. But, reluctantly, I will take the mobile units. To suffice. They have good presence. In the fields. The prisoners can see them.’
‘Excellent.’ Klein gave his grin, kept it going. ‘We can install three mobile units tomorrow. I will take your concerns to Herr Sander personally, Colonel. He will telephone you direct. We will measure for the six-muffle and I will inspect the others. See if they can be repaired quickly. As I said, the difference between building new or adding two more will be twenty thousand marks and two more weeks. By what you have said I understand that is unacceptable. I will advise Herr Sander that we need a better price and I will send out a repair team today. So as you may reduce your crimes.’ He smiled broader, like a ventriloquist’s dummy. ‘By reducing your criminals, eh?’
He stood, his hand out, and I followed. ‘Thank you so much for the coffee, Colonel, and for your valuable time.’ He declined an escort and, as we stepped the stairs, handed me a surgical mask from his pocket.
‘Here,’ he said. ‘You will need this.’ He stopped on the last step, blocking me. ‘And I would think it better if you did not speak directly to men like the colonel again. You are new. You could make unintentional mistakes. You understand, Ernst?’
‘Yes, Herr Klein. I am sorry.’
‘No, no. No need to apologise. It is my fault for not helping you. Come now.’
We passed the gatehouse again to reach the crematoria, the trucks being loaded with the prisoner work details behind us. Some of them for our factory, for Topf. To work to make the muffles that would find their way back here.
We smoked outside the crematoria beside a wooden fenced area taller than us. A cigarette for the work finished. The smell. The mask not helping, but I had expected it, readied for it.
‘It must be full,’ Klein said. ‘That stench. The morgue is below the ovens. They used to use pits.’ He waved towards the forest. ‘They still do. But the land is too marshy. The bodies rot into the water table. They discovered that early. It is the same problem at Auschwitz and Birkenau. The ground is like a swamp half the year. But good for us, eh? Less pits means more ovens, no?’
All this a revelation to me. Perhaps bringing me here my induction.
‘How will he react to speaking about bodies as commodities?’
‘He must understand we furnish ovens for the camps. Must have the aptitude. The attitude.’
‘And if he doesn’t?’
‘Plenty of unemployed men.’
I consoled that my friend Paul’s work was harder. In his crematoriums. He actually worked with the dead, worked the ovens. I only drew them. Someone else designed them, someone else installed them. Prisons need ovens. Cities need sewers. Unpleasant, but the way of things. Every hospital has a tall chimney somewhere along its skyline. Children will be born in the happier wards but far away from them will be a tall chimney. Make it as efficient as they could. The camps rife with disease, with sickness and the damned. A necessary service. This surely my induction to such.
I had taken down Klein’s instruction and measurements. He had taken photographs. We had finished for the day, passed lunch.
‘Two o’clock, Ernst. We should go. What do you say? Home early. I can develop my film at home. I have my own darkroom.’
‘Are we not going back to the factory? To send a repair team for tomorrow, sir?’
‘I organised that this morning. Before we left. I knew he would have to go for the repair. Senior-Colonel? Ha! You know he came from Himmler’s motor-pool?’
Keep up. Keep up.
He threw away his cigarette in an arc and I watched it fall and saw an officer in a peaked cap approaching. Klein did not wait for him. He strode toward, away from me, and I watched him put out his hand and intercept, converse out of my earshot.
I stood on my cigarette and watched them go back and forth, happily back and forth, and Klein turned his back to me. I shifted nervously, waved when the officer looked to me as Klein spoke. He did not wave back. I flushed at the glance, bent and pretended to fumble through Klein’s briefcase. Their shadows came over me.
‘Ernst,’ Klein said, and I stood up clumsily in the mud. ‘This is Captain Schwarz.’ We shook hands, his in leather. He bowed and I did the same, not as naturally. ‘I want you to do me a favour, Ernst,’ Klein said. ‘My house is only a few miles from here. It seems pointless for me to travel back to town only to come out again, no? I wondered if you would mind riding back to Erfurt with the captain?’
A gratified look from the SS captain.
‘I am going to Erfurt. To pick a gift for my wife, Herr Beck. At the Anger. It is her birthday. It is no trouble for me to take you home. I would welcome the companionship.’
Klein took his briefcase from me. ‘Would you mind, Ernst? I would appreciate it.’
‘Of course. Yes. Of course. But, Herr Klein? I think you still have my worker’s pass?’
The captain snapped out his gloved hand. My pass between his fingers like the reveal of a magician with my chosen card.
‘Here it is, Herr Beck. We will leave by the east gate.’
‘I’ll get your hat and coat from the car,’ Klein said.
The Daimler-Benz was not as grand as Klein’s Opel. Klein’s car for pleasure. This was austere, quieter, more noble. The first mile in silence and then as the farmhouses became manse houses the captain’s fingers became looser on the wheel. Removed his cap to my lap.
‘Too warm. Hold that for me would you, Herr Beck. I do not like to put it on the floor.’
I looked at the grinning silver skull.
‘Klein tells me that you have only been at Topf for a few days now?’
‘Yes, Captain. Since Thursday.’
‘What did you do before?’
‘I was at the university. Studying to be a draughtsman. Then no work until this.’
‘So you got the work you studied for? That is good. Well done.’
He was maybe ten years older than me but seemed ancient in comparison as if he had already lived one life and come back and remembered it all. I was the boy next to him. His uniform pristine like a wedding table, my clothes hanging around me with the wet morning. I could smell them above the car’s leather.
‘I never went to university. I envy you that. I could have. But I valued my duty more I suppose. But your duty is just as important. Your education will be a great asset to your country. We value that.’ He looked at me kindly. ‘When did you graduate?’
‘41.’ I added nothing else but he was ready to go on.
‘And you have only just found work?’
‘There was not a lot of work about.’
‘Ah. That is true. Did you not think of joining the war? For the time being? That is duty too, no?’
‘I married that year. I thought I would get a job sooner. I thought I would be helping the country by planning fighter craft by now.’
‘As did your wife I’ll bet? Women, eh? Look at me. I am going to the Anger and using up a day’s relief to buy something I do not want. And when I have to work Sunday to make up for it she will complain, eh? Women.’
‘I have only just started work and she has already spent my wage.’
He slapped the wheel and I jumped at his laugh.
‘That is it! That is just so, Ernst! We married men only understand! Look at Klein. No wife, no children. What does he know? Something we do not for sure.’
I did not know Klein was not married. I had assumed so. It bothered me. Unsure why. I thought everyone wanted to be married. Fool. Poor fool in a damp suit again. Riding in a car with an SS captain while Klein was at home fixing himself a bath and a Martini.
‘So, when did you join the Party, Ernst?’
I had forgotten the pin, the proud pin still stuck to my lapel. I looked at it as if a scorpion had appeared there.
I could say that Klein had given it to me. Given it to me for the reason he had said. To make the right impression. But that might get him into trouble. And myself. I had thought of Klein first. I was sure I should not treat a small tin badge with such flippancy. But if I said a year, a time, committed to it, there would be a paper somewhere to confirm. Everything, even my subsistence chits, were stamped with an eagle.
‘Oh. That would have been ’42. I think. To be honest, Captain, I am not political I must confess.’ I tried to say it the way Klein had done. ‘My wife insisted. Thought it would help with my career. They always know what is best for us.’ Now I was being more than the fool. I was playing it. I did not believe such sentiments about Etta. It is just what you say when you ride with an SS officer in his car. Your opinion his opinion.
He laughed again.
‘That is the way! That is the way! Do you have children, Ernst?’
‘No, Captain. But when we have won the war we should think of it.’
‘Exactly. Just so. I have a son. My proudest gift. I envy him the country he will inherit. What is your wife’s name?’
‘A good name. My wife’s name is Emma.’ He grimaced. ‘I think it is too English.’
‘Not at all. Where are you shopping in the Anger, Captain?’
He leaned his ear to me. ‘Hmm?’
‘The Anger. For your wife’s birthday.’
‘Oh. Yes.’ He shrugged. ‘I have not thought on it. I have a few hours to waste.’
‘We do not see many SS officers in town. You will be stared at no doubt, Captain.’
He nudged me with his elbow. Like a friend.
‘But I bet I get good service, eh? Now, where do you live for me to drop you?’
I had not thought on this. An SS car to my door. The black and silver pennants flying, the runes on the licence plate, the twitch of curtains along the street. Etta watching from the window.
‘If you drive to the Anger I can walk from there. I do not want to trouble you, Captain.’
‘Nonsense. It is no trouble. None.’ Turned his face to me, eyes off the road. ‘Where do you live, Ernst?’
I did not mean to slam closed the door of the apartment. Etta, alarmed, staring at me from the sink as I stood with the door braced at my back.
‘Ernst? Are you all right?’
‘I’m fine.’ I went to the window, threw my hat and coat to the chair.
‘You are home early? Was there a problem at the camp?’
‘No. No problem.’ I looked through the net curtain. The black car still there. ‘But I missed the cafeteria lunch.’
‘That is why you look so pale. I will make a sandwich. What are you looking at?’
The car sat there. No blue smoke from the back. Just sat there. Its flat roof looking up at me.
‘Frau Klein. Landlady patrol again. I had to run in. She was hovering around the door.’ This was partly true. Frau Klein had seen the captain open the car door for me from her ground-floor window. He bowed to me as I passed back his cap.
A slam of a plate, the yell of my name like my mother’s scold.
I spun from the window, sure a rat had run out of a cupboard.
‘Why in hell … why are you wearing that pin?’
I went back to the window. My eye up the street to the Anger, down to the station corner.
The car gone.
I rapped on Klein’s office door. The polite two-tone tap. A congenial pat-pat.
He called me in, sat behind his desk with pen and journal.
‘Good morning, Ernst. You have my notes?’
‘Yes, sir.’ I put the pad to his desk. Eight-thirty and I was already in my white-coat. I think he approved.
‘Sander will bring to your floor some plans for today. I will be chained to my desk, on administration for my labours. Prüfer is back from Auschwitz so we must all jump.’
‘It will be good to see Herr Prüfer again. If I get the chance, sir.’
‘I doubt it.’ He closed his pen. ‘He is in such a mood when he returns.’ He saw that I was waiting. ‘Is there anything else, Ernst?’
I brought out the pin.
‘I return this, sir.’ I placed it on his journal. ‘But I may have created a problem.’
The pin was gone, to his hand, to a drawer.
‘Captain Schwarz asked me when I had joined the Party. I did not want to lie … but I fear I have. I did not want to cause you any difficulty.’
‘Ah. I see. No. It is my fault. I did not think on it. A natural question. But it is fine that you concerned yourself, Ernst. About me. But do not worry. I have been a Party member since ’38. Schwarz knows this.’
‘But I thought … You said you were not a member? The pin just for impression?’
He went back into his chair.
‘No. I said I was not political. The badge is useful. Being in the Party is useful. I thought it would help you to wear it.’
‘But I have lied to him?’
‘I appreciate your concern. But do not think, Ernst, that SS captains spend their days trawling over paperwork checking up on junior members of staff of a factory. I should hope he is far too busy. As am I.’ He opened his pen.
‘I thought to let you know. He did ask. And I did lie. To an SS officer.’
‘I thank you for that. Your motives were for me and the company. Very good, Ernst. I am sorry you were inconvenienced. Please forgive me. I acted in your interest.’
‘I will not get into trouble?’ I changed my angle on that. ‘I would not wish to embarrass the company.’
‘No. You are right to tell me. If Schwarz should call I can explain.’
Call. If Schwarz should call.
‘I told him that I only joined at my wife’s insistence. That I was not active.’
‘So you are being too concerned. Get to your desk, Ernst. Do not worry. I can control my own department. Thank you for your help yesterday.’ His pen to his journal.
I bowed and left. Sweat in my palms.
Yesterday, explaining the badge to Etta, had not gone well. I tried to pass it off. As nothing. A small thing.
‘Herr Klein gave it to me.’ I plucked the pin from my jacket, pocketed it. ‘To make a good impression in the camp. For appearances sake. It is nothing.’ I moved away from the window.
‘It is something. You wore that in the street?’
‘No. I came from the car and straight in.’
I needed a cigarette. The papers and tobacco pause enough.
‘Herr Klein gave me a lift. He was going to the Anger. For shopping.’ Only half a lie.
Etta enraged as she lit the hob for the kettle.
‘He should have taken back his badge.’
‘I’ll give it to him tomorrow.’ I switched on the light. ‘Do we have money for the meter?’
‘Don’t do that. Don’t change the subject. If you want to join the Party to get on that is up to you.’
‘What difference does it make? A party is a party.’ I lit my cigarette, resumed my position by the window. To deposit my ash. To watch the street. As usual. Trying not to look up and down the road. ‘It does not mean anything any more.’
‘It means you are old-fashioned. That you belong in lederhosen. That you are an old man shouting at the dark. I am sure your father would approve.’
I left the window. ‘Would it change your opinion of me?’
She pulled cups and tea from the cupboard. Her face away from me. ‘It is your choice. If you want.’
Not the words she wanted to say. Not in their tone.
‘I didn’t think we were political,’ I said. The same tone.
‘Our country is at war, Ernst. Everyone is political. Even this damned tea has a swastika on the box. Why should my husband wear it less? Who am I to object?’ Slammed the tea back to the cupboard. ‘Now. Do you want to tell me about the camp?’
I waited for the whistling kettle. It would be easier to talk on my day over tea.
I went to my board, the last one on the right, the others smiling or ignoring me as I passed. I was the only one who did not wear glasses, the only young blond man. Everyone else with black slicked hair and thin moustaches. The old men that Klein had said he did not trust. These men had unions once.
We did not have stools, we stood all day, and that would take getting used to but no matter yet. Today was Tuesday and since Thursday last I had maybe only spent three hours at my desk. I stared at the blank white paper of my board, checked the wheel of the ISIS by moving it from corner to corner.
‘Those are yours,’ the voice of my colleague from the row beside me. He nodded to the table between us and to a grey bound folder almost the same size. ‘Herr Sander brought them. I told him you were not here yet.’ That meant he had told him I was late.
‘I was with Herr Klein,’ I said, in exactly the timbre to declare that he was not in such company.
I sat on the edge of the table, slipped off the corner ties and took out the first sheet. A note attached.
‘Furnace designs for Auschwitz – Birkenau II & III. Translate Alphabet with annotation in ink. F. Sander.’
This was a ground plan. An enormous room divided into several others. The ovens in the furthest room, complete with detailed trundles for putting the bodies in. Five triple-muffle ovens. Five in each drawing. Two crematoria. Thirty iron and fire-clay oven doors. For two crematoriums. Thirty doors. And there were still three more crematoria in this prison.
I was incredulous. Voiced it.
‘How many people die here?’
My colleague never stopped scratching his pencil.
‘Hundreds a day. The typhus is everywhere. And they execute criminals all day long. Did you see that fenced area at Buchenwald? By the crematorium?’
I did not know they were aware of my visit. Perhaps nothing to be hidden between floors. I would note that.
‘I smoked there.’
‘The execution yard. That is why the fence is so tall. The prisoners cannot see into it. Beside the morgue so you do not have to drag them too far to the chute.’
Hundreds a day, he said. How many camps the same? Thousands a day. Another front to the war. A war of disease. Did not want to think of it. Pictured the brass band instead. Every camp had a song Klein had said. Think of the better picture.
I took the paper to my board, clipped it up. I would only have to explain the dashes and breaks of line, the shaded areas and what these meant to the viewer in terms of constructing the building. The names of each room plain enough. But I decided that speaking to Paul would help me understand what I was looking at. What if I found a mistake? What if I could help improve? Make an educated difference. To get to the third floor. I would take a trip to Weimar at the weekend.
‘How have you been, Ernst?’
I jumped at the friendly voice. Kurt Prüfer at my shoulder. His smile like a shy boy’s. A chubby face behind round spectacles, grey and white hair cropped close to the bone to camouflage his baldness as men who have a roll of fat above their collar are wont to do. Grey suit to match his hair. He did not seem as moody as Klein warned.
‘Very well, sir.’
‘I see you have Sander’s new designs.’
We looked at the plan side by side.
‘I was wondering, sir – if it should help – I have an old school friend in Weimar who runs two of the crematoria there. I thought I might pay him a visit at the weekend. So that I may better understand our work.’ I thought this would be a good thing to say, to show my interest in the company’s products, and in my own time, but Prüfer’s mouth went thin.
‘The Special Ovens accounts for less than three percent of our output, Ernst. If you want to learn more about Topf the malting equipment and granaries would be a better study for a graduate who wishes to get on.’
‘Yes, sir. It is my ambition to do so.’
He rapped the plan. ‘Can this be done today?’
‘Yes. I understand it.’ I pointed to the stylised sig-rune heading at the top of the print that corresponded to the eagle and stamp in the right corner, signed by Sander. Not a double ‘S’ at all. An ancient Germanic rune reversed. It now stood for ‘victory’ instead of ‘sun’.
‘This is for the camp commander? I am to make it plain, sir?’
The cherub came back. ‘But do not make it look as if the reader is a novice. You understand?’
‘If you can get this done by this afternoon bring it to my office. I have come from Auschwitz with new requests that must be drawn up as soon as possible. Sander is working on them now.’ He pushed his glasses back where sweat had slipped them. I noticed his hands were rubbed almost raw from washing. Sanded almost.
‘Before five, Ernst.’
‘Yes, sir.’ And he left me, as simple as he had appeared. My colleague opposite pretended to hear none of it, as if our desks were in a different universe, and I hummed to myself at his flush of face and set to work.
The new boy taking his work direct to Prüfer’s office.
By four-thirty I had finished the annotations. I had started my walk to Prüfer’s office confidently but with each step I realised this was my first completed task.
Suppose I had not done well? Suppose my notes were obtuse? Vague? It was a deconstruction of the plan. We had done such things at the university many times but perhaps I had been too succinct, perhaps not enough. I would be judged by my first work in the real world and I slowed as I passed Klein’s office and onto Prüfer’s, appropriately the door that ended the corridor. I knocked twice, waited. An age. The shutting of filing cabinets echoed through the corridor.
‘Come in, Ernst.’
Prüfer’s office did not have the draughtsman’s board when he had interviewed me. It dominated the room, appeared strange in the room that I remembered. The room that now demanded something of me. He gave me no instruction as he stood beside it and I bowed, automatically, set the plan to the grips and stood back.
He removed his glasses, one hand to his back, a sea captain studying a course, and his spectacles roving across the plan like a magnifying glass.
‘Excellent, Ernst. Excellent.’ His eye moving along the paper from corner to corner and then he stepped aside, his spectacles’ arms pinned with difficulty behind his ears again.
‘This will do well. Sander will be pleased. Well done. Now, tell me what you might think of something.’
He went to his desk and with anything that came to hand weighted down another plan. I crossed the room, looked down at the paper spread as large as a tablecloth, a cog-like mechanism its centrepiece. Prüfer did not wait for any query.
‘The problem with the camp ovens, Ernst, is that they run on coke. It is inefficient to run and damages the ovens quickly. It takes much longer to reduce the matter than our gas ovens – such as your friend probably has in Weimar. One of ours no doubt.’ He was pleased at this. He may have installed them himself.
‘The SS will go for nothing less than coke. For cost. Yet they want more efficient ovens every year. They are wrong of course. Although more expensive to build, a gas oven is more economical. But they think like old men. Coal, coal, coal. Coal is cheap, the oven must be cheap. But now it is not so cheap.’ He tapped the cog on the drawing. ‘But see here, see here. The problem is that an oven must be a regulatory size if it is to work correctly. And they simply do not have the space for anything larger than the eight-door muffle oven in any building in Auschwitz. I know. I built them. If they build another crematoria, again no more than an eight-door, otherwise the heat will be too great. The men operating it would burn. By the end of the year there will be fifty-two ovens in these camps. They don’t listen. That will take enough coal to run a railway. But see here, see here.’
I turned my head to the diagram, like a dog trying to comprehend another’s bark coming from the radio.
‘Is this one of Herr Sander’s designs, sir?’
‘No. It is my own. It is a circular oven.’ He indicated the protrudes of the wheel that made me perceive the drawing as a cog-piece. ‘These are the muffle doors. Instead of having ovens in a line, each creating its own heat, you have a central furnace. Eight doors all around.’
I could see it then. Pictured the special unit of prisoners, a trundle, the sliding bed for the body, for each, standing in front of their oven door, trying not to look at each other across Prüfer’s central furnace as they loaded their burden.
‘They would have to remove the old ovens of course but it would double the capacity and – with a single larger furnace – it would be more efficient. The problem with each muffle having its own furnace is it negates the savings of using coke. If they had gone with gas jets from the start it would be cheaper overall. But they have made their bed.’
I saw the single massive furnace roar before me.
‘But how would you determine the ashes? From each other, sir? To send to their relatives? For interment?’
He stared at me, and then back to his crude design.
‘I don’t think you understand, Ernst. Do you think Kori of Berlin are not working on furnaces to improve efficiency? Marketing such to the SS? How are we to compete if it is not by better design?’
I had disappointed him. Could feel it. All design, all invention falling to the same adage:
Build a better mousetrap. It did not say build a bigger one.
‘Thank you for your efforts today, Ernst. Your plans must be brought to my office every night,’ he ordered, ‘for security. One of the reasons for hiring you is that many of the older men are ex-union men. They still hold socialist ideals. And there are many communists amongst them.’
I kept hearing these words. They were being drilled into me from every office in the building. I began to think that I was not so talented or wanted. Just local. And young. New.
‘And we have communists on the factory floor. Sure of it. From our own workforce and from the camps. But without knowing who they are we do not get rid of skilled men when we have need of them. We could not fulfil our contracts without. But we have been instructed by the SS that the men who work on these plans must be totally trustworthy. Must have no communist ties. It is easier to use new men.’ He took the plans from the board and folded them into his safe.
‘The new ovens are … important … to the SS. Not for communist eyes.’ He winked his cherubic smile. ‘You will have them waiting for you every morning. Good night, Ernst.’
I bowed and left, cursed myself. I should not have opinions. A man should admire everything from his superiors, not question. I passed Klein’s office, the sound of him laughing down the telephone at my back as I walked.
My ISIS machine was the last one on my row, no-one behind me to see, my co-worker beside me too engrossed in his own work and I was sure he would not know what I was permitted to do and not do, but still, I waited until he took a pipe break to copy the Auschwitz plan from memory. A scaled version in my pocket. Take it home. To show Paul at the weekend. Working at home a good habit for an ambitious man.
When I first met Etta she was that entrancement of a typical zaftig Austrian woman. Curls and curves. City life and style had near straightened her red curls and she maintained them religiously. I imagined that as a child her auburn hair had set her out when all her classmates would have been as shining blonde as the brass in an orchestra.
Her figure too gone the way of a city girl walking to work, and the privations of war had slimmed her so that her nightwear no longer clung but draped, flowed like water about her. Every year she became a new woman before me. Every year a new bride. I envied even myself over my fortunes with her. We argued because we were so similar. We made up because we were so similar. I had known women before her but all I learned from them was how to erase the errors of arrogant youth so I could correctly love this one. I met her at an Erfurt fair, she had tripped, and I caught her and her soup bowl over my shirt. It was dark, the only light from the bulbs of the market stalls selling pretzels and hot chocolate. I never saw she was a redhead until the next day when we met for lunch. I never looked at another woman after that. My youth had been only training to get to that point, sure that some higher power had closed his book and said, ‘I’m done with this one. Next.’
We married in Switzerland, where her parents had moved to in ’39. We were twenty-one. I was ending my last year at university. Etta had been coming to the library there for years. We had never met.
Her parents had rented her an apartment and I advantaged on that to leave my parents, to leave my small box room where I had grown up. This was not a sudden thing. We had courted for months. Needed more time together. It was like playing at house. Decorated the place like a child’s birthday party. Never made the bed up. No point. Ate meals on our laps. Listened to the radio that grew worse every week. Even the music controlled. Everything on it decades or centuries old or just shrill speeches from names we did not know. They took the long-wave from us, took music from us. We shrugged. The country shrugged.
Etta had married a poor Erfurt boy. No reason to. She could have had anyone. Any of those rich boys her father knew. Sometimes the bafflement of this needed reassurance and she would touch me, would smile as at a child.
‘There’s no such thing as a good rich man, Ernst. No-one ever got rich being a good man. I would rather trust a poor honest one. One without a mistress.’
‘And how do you know I don’t have a mistress?’
‘Because you can’t afford one.’
We moved into that one-room apartment next to the hotel that summer. Her father no longer able to pay for hers from Switzerland as the banks consolidated under government control. Only internal transactions permitted. I signed on for the married man’s subsistence. She took a waitress job. But we were never happier. Until a month became three years. Until the war became three years. People wore it on their faces. The people in their maps that they pushed their tiny markers of planes and battalions over like croupiers dragging away your losses. Thin as paper maps. The bed got made. Ate at table.
Marriage is for the young. Yet the old men you invite to your wedding scoff, the women cry, the divorced drain their glasses, talk behind hands. But there is red hair under a white veil, a boy in a loaned suit and everything is possible. But you have to go home. The larder has to be filled. You take a job drafting ovens for prison camps. The bed got made. Ate at table. Turned off lights only to save the meter. Early. Before the blackout.
When Etta and I returned from our marriage in Switzerland we had a celebration for all our friends which at least my father had got off the bridge to attend. A real Erfurt celebration with Bach and beer. The women in white and the men in green felt and caps. A gloriously ludicrous display. Probably the last time I have been truly drunk. It was Etta’s friends mostly, Paul Reul the only one of mine, the only one we shared, the only one other than my father I let dance with her.
Paul left school at fourteen to work as a stonemason with his father, and from there, from the headstone commissions, he managed to get himself in with the undertakers of Weimar and Erfurt and studied the almost religious sanctity of the crematoria.
Paul had carved his own headstone, as his father had his own. An eerie tradition. The last date missing. He was proud of it, mentioned it to people he had only just met as an ice-breaker after he had introduced himself and his employment and the laughter would come awkwardly as he explained.
‘I won’t get to see it else. And who knows what they will write about me!’
Before ’34 and the Nuremberg laws cremation was not popular, and for Jews it was against their beliefs entirely, but once the deportations began and German families moved into Jewish homes, and the camps began to bring them their trade, business increased from miles around.
The Nuremberg regulations made cremations as religious as burial. For Paul and his colleagues this legitimacy made them as respected as priests. They built chapels of rest, held services, and Topf’s petrol and gas ovens made the process contained, not vulgar, as distinguished as funerals, like the white-smocked clergy by the grave and dust to dust, and no widow would have to brush ash from her black sleeve when she took a walk outside, for a breath of air, for the private dab of tear.
Paul was a close friend at school, he was in classes below me but a good stalwart at play and with an older sister a constant source of female mysteries. He had not attended the university but his profession could aid me in mine I was sure.
Etta had wanted to come but I explained that this was work, not a day-trip. Besides, I could enquire on another matter in Weimar which would be easier without her.
It is only fifteen minutes and ten pfennigs to take the train to Weimar. There are five crematoria for the city. Paul owns two of them. He is on the steps of his chapel in Jacob Street in his black suit waiting for me like he must wait for his hearses or the wagons from the camps. He sees me, and his dignified stance changes to an animated rush as he runs to greet me like the boy in school again.
‘Ernst!’ He waves, clasps my hand. ‘So good to see you!’
‘Thank you for seeing me.’
‘Of course, of course! Come. I make you coffee. How is Etta? How can I help you?’
I needed my friend’s advice, his opinion. Colleagues and family, even wives, sometimes reflect only your own.
Old friends the mirror that you cannot see yourself in.
‘What is this, Ernst?’ Paul studied the paper, the plans across his coffee-table in his private rooms. A comfortable place. Nicer than my home. Not an office. No paperwork here. If working men had rooms where they could retire to during the day I am sure they were doing well. He had left school at fourteen. I went to university and rent a gas cooker with one working hob.
‘These are replacement ovens for a few of the crematoria at the Auschwitz camps. The place is enormous. Its own city almost.’
Paul sat back to furnish his pipe. I would not show him that I still smoked rolled cigarettes. His speech lisped as the pipe hung from his mouth. He sounded like my father judging my school-work.
‘You know, Ernst, the camp at Buchenwald used to bring wagons of corpses to us for disposal. Not so much the last year. And we used to get deliveries of ashes from the eastern camps to return to families. Not now. The camps have dispensed with formalities. Ignored the laws of their own government. By law the remains are supposed to come to people like myself. We formalised the paperwork and contacted the relatives. We store them here for them if they cannot pay for their release. The SS charge them for the cremation. We have cupboards full of them.’
‘The typhus means they are having to burn more deceased. I suppose in times of emergency laws must be bypassed.’
‘But we get no ashes now. None. They cannot all die of disease. The Party are the ones who regulated. Would you not wonder what hand decided that the rules no longer mattered? That the dead do not matter?’
‘I have been inside Buchenwald,’ I said. ‘There are sixty thousand men there. They have one crematorium. Six ovens. They are overwhelmed. The morgue is below the ovens. The stench was incredible. They cannot cope. Topf is trying to help them. Auschwitz must have the same problems.’
‘And what is so different about this crematoria. What am I looking at?’ He went back to looking at the plan and I pointed the rooms out to him.
‘Instead of the ovens being on the ground floor they will be on the same level as the morgue, the mortuary and pathology. All underground. They use hand-drawn lifts currently.’
‘So do I. And what is this large room between?’
‘The delousing room. This annexe next to it is for the clothes.’
‘They delouse the prisoners next to the mortuary and the ovens?’
‘They delouse,’ I indicated the showers in the ceiling, ‘and then they shower them. This is for the new prisoners. Straight off the train. The track is close by so they do not mingle with the rest of the camp.’
He sucked on his pipe and it rattled on his teeth.
‘And what are these lines here, to the morgue?’
‘Gas for what?’
‘I do not know. Exactly. Heating?’
He sat back. ‘You do not heat a morgue, Ernst. You do the opposite.’
‘For the hot water then?’
‘I doubt they give them hot water. What is the building above?’
‘I do not have that plan.’
He studied for three puffs of his pipe.
‘This building makes no sense to me.’
I watched his hands navigate the drawing.
‘You have five triple-muffle ovens behind a delousing room the size of a school hall. The dead would have to be trundled through this hall making it inoperative at those times and – if it is to be as busy as you say it is – that is useless. The morgue and pathology also in this room? There is also only one entrance. These are steps leading to it, yes?’
I agreed, but unsure of it.
‘Well, I do not see any chutes leading to the morgue. So they carry the dead down one by one? By these stairs?’
I looked hard at the plan.
‘There was a chute at Buchenwald. To the morgue.’
‘There does not seem to be one on this plan. Are the dead expected to walk down?’
I had not noticed, felt foolish in front of my friend. Fool. Idiot.
‘Perhaps it is missing?’ My first thought glinted. I had found an error, an oversight I could highlight. To my superiors. Ernst Beck. A designer. ‘They have missed the chutes.’
‘Do you think Topf would make such a mistake, Ernst?’
‘Maybe it is a cost issue? From the SS.’
‘Cement stairs rather than a couple of chutes or a lift to the morgue? I could not operate a morgue underground without a platform lift or a chute. With this design I would be carrying the bodies through the chapel. That is illegal, Ernst. This design is illegal.’
I could no longer refrain from pulling out my sweepings of tobacco. His observations needed a deliberating smoke. Paul watched me roll a cigarette before he went on. I do not think he judged my cheap simulation of smoking, as Klein would have done.
‘I would like to copy this plan, Ernst. I could maybe help with its improvement. Make suggestions. One friend to another.’
‘You have helped, Paul. I did not notice there were no chutes. And you are right. It makes no sense to wheel the dead through a shower room.’ I struck a match and lit up, to think on my next words as I folded the plan away from him. ‘I’m sure that it is an SS request rather than an error of our engineers. No need to trouble yourself further.’
The plan would stay with me. Paul had once been a stonemason. In my innocence, my naivety, I could only think of Freemasons. Of unions and communists. And I had been warned often enough. And I had copied this plan without permission.
‘It is no trouble, Ernst,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you and Etta could come to supper one evening? Catch up properly.’
‘I would like that. We would like that.’ I stood. ‘Thank you, Paul.’ We shook hands.
‘Is there anything else I can help you with, Ernst? A long way to come for so short a visit.’
‘Actually there is. While I’m here.’
‘Of course. Anything.’
‘Could you direct me to the Party office? We have none in Erfurt.’
Paul’s hand dropped from mine, went to hold his pipe in his mouth.
‘An office? Headquarters, Ernst. Weimar has an NS headquarters. The Gauforum. A whole square of them.’
I think he wanted me to react, to check something in me. As if our handshake had been a secret sign.
‘Just an office would do. Thank you.’
The office in Rittergasse, behind the Herderplatz, had both the Party flag and the yellow and black-eagle standard of the Republic, the Weimar Republic, for Weimar was the city, the heart, of constitution. All but gone now, a memory. The red, white and black flag was twice the size, ridiculous on the small medieval building, the bottom of it almost stroking people’s heads as they passed underneath. Reminding them as they passed. This was the small face of the Party. Where ordinary citizens could pay to join. Weimar’s Party headquarters and buildings not for the public.
That familiar call again. The one from across a square, from a crowded fair while courting, from a balcony as you go to work. That courting call. The red hair loose about her shoulders, not curled. Etta only ever walked in public with her hair curled. Curled and warmed as if she had paid for it and had not spent the morning making it so. She had hurried. A green woollen hat hiding the care she had not taken.
‘Ernst!’ she cried again, waving, and stopping with her hand to her face as a bicycle bell cut her path and the rider cursed as he swerved from her. And then she was at my shoulder, her gloved hand upon me, green, like her hat, no matter her hurry Etta could match her clothes from the pile that fattened in the bottom of our wardrobe before washday with ease. I could not match socks.
‘Ernst. Don’t do this,’ she said. A hoarseness as if she had screamed this a dozen times on her way here.
‘Etta? How are you here?’ All I could say.
‘Frau Klein came for her rent. I knew you had ten marks in your old cigar box. Your papers were missing from it. Your birth certificate and mine.’ Her hand to her mouth again. ‘Please don’t do this, Ernst.’
‘You followed me here? I was only seeing Paul.’
She looked over my shoulder to the flags. ‘And coming here. I knew you were coming here.’
‘You said I could. If I wanted. For my career.’
‘I thought you wouldn’t. If I said I didn’t mind, I thought you wouldn’t.’
The minds of our women. The hand left my shoulder.
‘Buy me a tea,’ she said, took my hand. ‘We have to talk.’
A teapot for two in the restaurant of the Elephant Hotel. Weimar had a hundred places we could have gone and I would have preferred the Black Bear Inn next door, but I guessed that Etta thought the hotel would be quieter during the day. This was a grand place on the cobbled market square, the Party’s favourite adopted hotel. They had it redesigned several years ago and built balconies front and rear where our leader and other dignitaries could give speeches to the multitudes that gathered in the square or privately behind the hotel; for speeches that were not for the public.
There was an amusing rumour that the leader himself had called for the remodelling as his regular rooms did not have their own WC. This meant that every time he left to visit the one at the end of his corridor he would re-emerge to rapturous applause from the throng that had heard that their leader was up and about. He would have to salute as the toilet flushed gratefully in the background while he walked back to his rooms in his pyjamas. Not so many parades this year. Everything now centred on Berlin.
I thanked the waitress for the biscuits she placed beside the tea. The biscuits welcome for we could not afford to eat here. Etta thanked her warmer and the girl smiled back as she bowed away. Etta also a waitress. People who worked in service always warm to each other. They know the rest of us are the worst.
‘Do hotels have rationing?’ I asked no-one, looking around, feeling awkward in the company of my own wife. As if we were both someone else’s partners.
‘I don’t know, Ernst,’ she said, patting the back of her hair. ‘Does it matter?’
‘No.’ I smiled, hoped she would meet me with it. ‘Why did you not want me to go in, Etta? To the Party office?’
She tried to dab at her eyes without disturbing her make-up. I waited for her to finish and for the teapot to cool. The handkerchief and compact away to her handbag, its clasp’s click punctuating her talk.
‘I have to tell you something, Ernst. But promise me that you will not think that I have lied to you. Please don’t feel that. It is not personal.’
All the dread thoughts that husbands have when this conversation comes ran through my heart before my head. A flutter in my chest. She saw my consternations and her face became gentle again.
‘Ernst. My birth certificate is not my own. My parents paid for it years ago. When I was a girl. To change my name and theirs.’
‘What?’ I exclaimed this more with relief than surprise. ‘Why?’ Relief that it was not another lover. That I had not been betrayed. ‘Is your name not Etta?’
‘Of course it is. But not Etta Eischner. It is Etta Kirch. And now Etta Beck so probably none of this matters anyway.’ She poured the tea, the chime of china as she trembled.
‘I have three Jewish grandparents. My mother and father are Jewish. But they do not practise. But I do not think that matters any more. Jewish by birth is still Jewish. But – under the law – you are married to a Jewess, Ernst. Our marriage is invalid.’
My thoughts and words stumbling. ‘But we were married in Switzerland? Does that not count for something?’ Gibberish. ‘You’re not Jewish. You were born here.’ Nonsense from the boy.
‘Do you think that concerns any of them now? They still take you away in the night. Camp first. Questions later. That is why I had to be married at my parents’ villa. Safer for us all. And I’m sure there were plenty of Armenians in the last war that were married Protestant in Paris. Do you think that mattered to the Turks?’
We sipped our tea as other guests went past our little table, our little tableau.
Strange how the most shocking things are revealed in congenial places and moments. I imagine it is God’s amusement. Everything we touched cool white. Everything above us gold plaster. We apart from it all.
‘What does this mean?’ I said. The room empty again.
‘Our marriage would be annulled. That would be the least. But …’
‘But you are married to a German?’
She looked hard at me.
‘I am German, Ernst.’
‘You know what I mean. You were concerned that if I showed an official your birth certificate they might notice it was counterfeit. Or they would check up on it.’
‘I’m sure they would.’
‘So we are safe. Nothing has changed. No-one needs to know. No harm to us. I do not care. Your parents only did what they saw right. To protect you.’
‘But they left for Switzerland. I stayed here and met you. We cannot afford to leave.’
I no longer noticed if the mention of money was a slight at me. Just fact.
‘Why should we leave? I have a career now. These are our roots here. Germany is the capital of the world.’
‘Perhaps my father could pay for us to get out? Would you consider that?’
I leaned forward.
‘I have a job, Etta. For us. For our children to come. Travel is too restricted now. You have a forged passport as well.’
She sipped, shrugged, and it curdled me.
‘Ernst? It changes nothing with us, does it? But no-one official should see my papers. You agree? Not now?’
I reached across and our hands touched for the first time since we had sat. I saw the staff at the bar wink and whisper. We must have looked newly in love. All the more sweet on a Saturday in wartime when no-one knew what tomorrow dawned on.
The door crashed in. Four grey uniforms came laughing and slapping each other to the bar and the staff snapped up like rods, the laughter echoing louder off the high ceiling as if there were fifty of them. I withdrew my hand and Etta looked to them, back to my pale face.
‘What is it, Ernst?’
Their appearance had reminded me of Captain Schwarz. The black holsters at their waists, still startling to me. They laughed louder as their drinks came, caps to the bar. I recalled a death’s-head cap on my lap. His face leaning towards me.
‘What is your wife’s name? Where do you live, Ernst?’
‘Etta.’ I said her name as if for the first time. ‘I also have something to confess. And it might matter now.’ I pushed my cup away.
‘Etta. I did not get a lift home from Herr Klein the other night.’
We returned to Erfurt station. Almost six, the west sun came through the glass of the concourse in golden shafts, motes of dust shimmering along them like rapturous lanes to a better place. From train-lines to throne. We walked through them, Etta’s body close into mine shivering like a child rescued from a river. The shimmers glowed on us. Chose not to take.
We spoke when our door closed.
‘Do you think he … they will check on us?’ as her coat fell to the floor.
I repeated what Klein had said.
‘I would hope the SS are too busy to examine one minor employee of a factory.’ I picked up her coat, hung it with mine. ‘My references from the university would have already been assessed. I’m sure everything is fine. I have no work records. No union history, no political preferences from the university. That is why I’m the one working on these drafts. It has been mentioned enough.’
‘But your wife is a Jew. They have not known that.’
‘You knew I was taking this job, Etta. And even I did not know that you …’
She sat, pulled off her hat like it was a rat, flung it to a corner.
‘I did not know you would be working for the SS. I thought you would be drawing silos. Not ovens for Jews.’
I sat beside her and she edged from my arm about to comfort.
‘They are ovens for the camps, Etta. Tools for the camps. Necessary. Buchenwald has a theatre. Cinema. Even a brothel.’ All Klein’s words again. ‘They need furnaces.’ I said this as factually as I could, but I thought on Paul’s words. He said he used to get the ashes to send to the relatives. That the government would charge the relatives for the cremation. I could not concede that they no longer needed the money. They did not even want to afford the coke for the furnaces.
‘Don’t, Ernst.’ She touched my hand. ‘Don’t be so … Do you remember when there was the Zionist plan? When we were younger? The Party and the Jewish leaders joined together to have them relocated to Palestine? The Attack newspaper – Goebbels’ paper for Christ’s sake – even gave away that souvenir medallion. Star of David one side, swastika on the other. And then the war came. The government could no longer pay for such a plan. Now it was a cleansing instead. My family went to Switzerland. By then I had met you.’ She held my hand tighter. ‘But who would have imagined this? Years of this.’
‘You are not Jewish, Etta. And imagine what? We are at war. We do not know what enemies we have or from where. The Americans imprison Germans, the Italians and Japanese. We are only doing the same.’
‘It is not the same.’ She let go my hand. ‘This is different.’
‘The conference the rest of the world had about the refugees. Remember that? No-one would take them. Every civilised country in the world refused them. Forced them to stay. The Party said they’d put them on luxury liners if another country would take them. You know who said yes? The Dominican Republic. The bloody Dominican Republic! They wanted to take one hundred thousand and everyone else just turned their backs. Ernst, you had to get my father to send you that Lotte book. A book set in Weimar about Goethe. A book set in our own cities. For Germans. He sent it in two pieces because they had banned it. They burn books, Ernst. What do you think they do? To Jews? If they ban even German books?’
I stood, went to the window and my tobacco. The motion and method of making a cigarette a catechism. To steady thoughts. To distract with our own hands. How often does one do that in a day? Concentrate on our hands. The smoker knows this. The rosary of it. The lighting of the paper the lesser part. It is the retreat that matters.
‘I do not know,’ I said. ‘The ovens are being increased to stem the typhus. The diseased dying. Imagine if that spread to the cities? What then?’
‘Ernst.’ She paused as my match struck and my hands cupped and drew life. ‘Why build more ovens, spend more money, in the expectation of more disease when that might not happen? Is not that money better spent on prevention? Is that what scientists do? Only find better ways to kill the infected? Would you go to the dentist whose only tool was a hammer? And does not the forced labour workers from the camps spread that disease? The ones in your factory?’
I blew my smoke into the room.
‘What are you saying?’
She seemed to grow small, her body retracting.
‘I don’t know. I do not know enough. You are building … you are working for a company that builds ovens for the SS. You say that Auschwitz is almost a city. And you have had no work until this … so … I don’t know.’ She looked at me. ‘It is just fear, Ernst. If you were drawing planes I am sure this feeling wouldn’t be … but … I don’t know.’
‘So if I annotate a bomber that kills thousands that is fine. But an oven is wrong?’
‘You were driven home by an SS captain. The car outside our home.’
‘What difference does that make?’
She grew larger again, the colour back to her face.
‘I’ll tell you, Ernst. I will tell you what difference such things make. I saw how you shut our door when that car brought you home. The car you did not tell me about. When Frau Klein came for her rent, when I had only ten marks to give her and I found our papers missing and us owing her forty marks. She took the ten. And she apologised. I have never seen that woman sweeter. She told me not to worry on the rent. Pay her when we can. Whenever we can.’ She crossed her arms. Found interest in the corner where her hat lay.
‘That is the difference such things make, Ernst Beck.’
The cherry of my cigarette was the only light in the room as I drew on it, turned it away from her to look out on the street alone. My usual pose.
April became May. The radio and newspapers reported our army’s successful strategic redeployment from Rome, from Cassino. But we knew what that meant, had all become used to reading between the lines. When children played with wooden guns in the street they had American accents. They could not be blamed for such. They had picked this up from the Party’s own cowboy movies. Our leader an avid Western fan. It had a symbolism to him. Films about claiming land, on overcoming and conquest and Christian victory. He did not perceive that the only thing the children would pick up would be the guns and the drawl. There was more Tom Mix in them than Siegfried.
Here did not feel like a place of war, surrounded by it, yes, but only as much as we were surrounded by forest and so did not take part in the wars of the birds either. We, Erfurt and Weimar, still our country’s Christmas card paintings.
There was a foreboding around Etta and I in the first days after our revelations. But nothing happened. No knock on the door. Just that fog of dread. Waiting for it to come.
I did my work. Did not ask questions. And we became calm again. I had been paid. We went to café lunches at weekends and paid our rent and Frau Klein even curtsied to me. I bought wine in bottles not closed with a beer stopper and no label. I signed off from subsistence. Etta quit her waitress work. I provided.
And then Hans Klein called me to his office. On a Friday morning. The favourite day to fire an employee I had heard. The way of business.
I had to wait before my knock on the door was acknowledged. Seconds only. Enough time to think of every horror behind the door. From yelling to gunshot, all extremes and everything in-between, and every one of them ending with Etta’s sobs. But there was only the sound of cabinets closing. The usual sound in Topf’s corridors. The sound of muffle doors closing ovens. Only people without imagination do not doubt and fear.
Klein blew out my name happily with his smoke. I could almost see my name form in the cloud. He pushed his orb of cigarettes to me. I bowed and took an American Camel. My first in three years. I ran it under my nose. It did not smell as well as expected, hoped. Perhaps they were never good. Or nothing was how it was before.
‘I am pleased with your work, Ernst. We all are.’ He passed his onyx table-lighter to my hand. ‘And I have grand news.’
‘Thank you, Herr Klein.’
‘You have not heard it yet.’ He gave me that grin. ‘You may not like it.’
He was in grey today. A Hugo Boss. The couturier for the SS. I had begun to notice such things. Begun to notice shoes in windows beyond the sureness of their soles. I looked at their stitching now. Owned my own pair of black wing-tips.
We sat, the desk between, and shared an ashtray, which Klein pushed to favour my side.
‘Your name, lately, Ernst, has caused even Herr Topf to take notice of you.’
I coughed on my cigarette. Harsher than my tobacco.
This? This the knock on the door?
He watched me cough. Waited for me to settle.
‘Your name stood out to him. It would. Would it not?’
My mouth too dry from the cigarette to speak. Drawing on it again the automatic solution. I must have seemed sick to Klein. A parental concern on his face.
‘I mean your names, Ernst. Your names are the same. Ernst Topf. Ernst Beck.’ He studied me behind his cigarette. ‘Why? What did you think I meant?’
Fool. Idiot. A kid coughing on his first cigarette.
I sat back with him. Copied his pose and he grinned.
‘Don’t you want to hear my grand news, Ernst?’
‘A house, Etta!’
I had run the stairs. She had panicked at the rushing sight of me, not heard what I said, only the door crash, her hand on her chest.
‘Topf has given us a house!’
‘What are you talking about? What house?’
I held her shoulders, gasped for air, grinning like Klein.
There were fine houses opposite the Topf factory, I had seen them on my first day, on my first walk to work. They were near the ghetto, but the ghetto was not there when they were built and the ghetto empty now anyway, not there now. Open suitcases left in doorways, in the streets, along with the single shoes as if the rapture had come here. A decade of rain and dust breaking the shoes to corruption.
Topf senior had bought these houses for his workers during the Great War, for his top men. A benefit. He had his own villa nearby. He could walk to work. And he wanted his best men to do the same; did not want them to have an excuse to be late. And they would have no excuse to not be early if he so chose or work as late as he so chose. Topf the juniors kept the same ideals. Keep work close to home. Early and late. The benefit of no unions.
Klein had shaken my hand. His other passed a set of long keys. An aged paper tag.
‘These are yours, Ernst. The house has been professionally prepared. I will have one of our trucks move you in whenever you are ready. Congratulations.’
‘But why, Ernst?’ Etta’s hands flat on my shirt, against my chest, and I could feel my heart beneath.
‘My work is to increase. The SS have been pleased with my explanations of the designs. My work has gone to Berlin! And Topf have more of them every day for me to work on. I have become their preferred man for the task. Klein says I will go the top floor once this job is done!’ That was an exaggeration. But it was a time for such.
‘But a house?’ She stood back, a hand to her face. ‘Why would they do such?’ Concern on her face more than elation.
Klein had said it straight enough, as if it was his good work, his plan.
‘Topf has expressed to Sander that a workman such as yourself, one in demand, approval from Berlin, should not be exploited by having to pay the rents of the common. These houses used to be for the top-floor only. Rent free. You are too new to be promoted, to pay you more, but your work is important enough that you should gain some benefit. As good as promotion. This from the Topfs themselves. Six weeks you have been here. Well done. I am proud to have you on my floor. It makes practical sense to have you closer to the factory. And in a place of comfort where you could work from home. Sander and Prüfer agree. You could work in privacy.’
‘You said I might not like this, sir? Herr Klein! You have changed my life!’ I blushed at my exclaim. Foolish words, no matter how honest. Childish.
‘I meant,’ he said, ‘that I like to go far away when I leave work, Ernst.’ He went back to his desk. ‘You are across the road. You will be first in and the last out. An eye upon you all the time. That might dampen your spirit.’
I could not pocket the keys. I was weighing them in my hand. I am twenty-four years old. I have a house. Rent free. My wage doubled simply by walking through its door. Maybe short term, maybe not. You do not think like that when someone puts keys in your hand. The top floor had been mentioned. That was enough. If Klein and Topf had me in their pockets I could justify that scrutiny.
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