Dr Clarke Zlotchew is Distinguished Teaching Professor at State University of New York. He is the author of seventeen books, including anthologies of short fiction, translations from the Spanish of short stories and poetry by Nobel Laureates and literary criticism of Spanish and Latin American authors. His short stories have appeared in both his Spanish and English versions in the U.S. and Latin America, as well as in Jewish Affairs ( http://www.clarkzlotchew.com)
The slim twenty-eight-year old man had finished his day of teaching at the high school and was ambling along Main Street, on the way to his Liberty Street apartment. It was 3:45 on a typical spring afternoon in early May, and he had no reason to rush. The cloudless sky was clear blue, the air diaphanous. David Berg felt relaxed, contented, despite having just taught a lesson on World War II. After all, he reasoned, that was then; this is now. A chorus of cheerful bird chatter emanating from Barker Commons, the beautiful little park on the other side of the street, reminded David of Vivaldi’s music. The scent of budding flowers gave way to the stronger aroma of pizza, beer, and grilled meat that wafted out of restaurant doorways and streamed through the air in a savory current. Nothing, he mused, absolutely nothing could go wrong on a day like this.
Thoughts of his girlfriend Tracy, who would soon join him, pasted a silly smile on his handsome face. More people passed by, now that he was in the small downtown area of Fredonia. Everyone, whether he knew them or not, returned his greeting or simply smiled and nodded. He passed the bank on the corner of Water Street, crossed to the other side and turned left, on his way to Darwin’s Health Club. Need to keep my muscles toned up, he told himself. As he passed Charlie’s Barber Shop, he waved to Randy, who glanced out the window and returned the greeting with the hand wielding the scissors. David combed his fingers through his dark brown hair, wondering if it might be time for a haircut.
It was great to be alive. Classes were going well, and his girlfriend Tracy had looks as well as brains. He lived in a well-ordered little town populated by friendly citizens. His students were lively and liked his wacky sense of humor. What more could he ask for? A voice called his name from the bank side of the street. Turning, he saw it was Brook, one of his best students. Seeing her reminded him that he needed to talk to her about scholarships. He turned and began to cross the street. For a split second, he was puzzled by the abrupt shift from a smile to a look of horror on his student’s face. She suddenly extended her arms full length toward him, the palms of her hand facing him. He froze in place, but a loud sound made him turn his head to the right to see a greyish blur hurtling toward him. Then he saw black.
# # #
Twenty-eight-year old David Berg was dead-tired and dying to have something, anything, to eat. More urgently, he was parched, and needed water. The young man was crushed in this cattle car among the others. David had lost track of time on this seemingly-endless journey, breathing the increasingly foul air issuing from the bucket in the corner that served as a latrine. Suddenly, the train lurched to a halt with a piercing screech of braked steel wheels on steel tracks that set his teeth on edge. No one fell, only because they were packed so tightly that there was no room to fall. The doors slid open with the squealing of rusty rails and the bang of the sliding door slamming against the frame. Finally, fresh air. But there was a faint, sickeningly sweet smell in the air that was completely unfamiliar to David. He shivered from the sudden drop in temperature. The slate-colored sky seemed a heavy lead weight pressing down on his shoulders. It glowered at him. The sounds of furious barking combined with voices bellowing in German assailed his ears.
He had been told he would be shipped east to a work camp. This was an outrageous abuse of power by the Nazi government, breaking up families, uprooting decent men and women from their ordinary lives, shoving them onto cattle cars like livestock. But he could put up with it for a year. He tried to convince himself that it wouldn’t be so bad: working with his hands in fresh air could only benefit him. It would tone his muscles, maybe even grow more muscle. It would be an interesting experience and surely would last no more than a year. Maybe two. By then, the German people would be fed up with National Socialism and vote that government out of power. Then things would return to normal. But what about the older men here with him? Surely, they wouldn’t be expected to perform physical labor. And where were his parents and sisters? What were they doing? They would probably be given desk jobs. But did the authorities really need these vicious dogs, the guns, the haste? David and all the others weren’t hardened criminals. Then why?
# # #
David awoke to find himself in bed feeling as though sledge hammers were pounding his brain to mush. He scanned the room and realized he was in a hospital. One arm was in a sling, one leg in a cast was held by a pulley a foot above the sheets. Tracy had been seated but, noting his stirring, rose and stood by the bed, anxiety imprinted on her face. David saw a blurry double image of her. He blinked several times, and tried to focus, but his vision improved very little. Attempting to raise his arm and touch her, he found his forearm had a needle stuck in his vein, with a tube attached to a plastic pouch containing some sort of liquid.
“Tracy, honey,” he croaked, “what happened? Where am I?”
“Oh, David, sweetie, you’re in Brooks Hospital.”
He repeated, “What happened?”
“You got hit by a car yesterday. A drunk driver whipped around the corner from Canadaway Street. It…”
“Yesterday?! What day is this?”
“Friday, baby.” Anticipating his next question, she added, “And it’s five past two in the afternoon.”
“What?! But I was supposed to be teaching.” He tried to sit up again, but his head felt as though it would explode. He sank back to the pillow.
She placed her hand on his chest and shook her head slowly. “Are you joking, David? Teach? Don’t worry about it. The school has brought in a substitute. You just concentrate on getting well. Soon.” She paused, then, “David, you were muttering something in your sleep. It sounded something like ‘the dogs, the dogs.’ And other things I couldn’t make out.”
He thought. “Oh, yeah. I was having this weird dream. Really weird.”
“Well, I have to get back to the bakery now. You be a good boy, and just take it easy. Okay?” She smiled. “Dream about me.”
# # #
The uniformed guards were shoving the men forward through the arched gateway, hurrying them by poking their backs with batons. Other guards stood there holding submachine guns. An officer who held a Luger pistol at his side oversaw the proceedings. Dogs, barking ferociously, strained at their leashes. They kept lunging at the captives, their lips drawn back, displaying sharp teeth in slobbering mouths, no more than a foot away from the prisoners. David looked up at the arch just before passing through. It bore the slogan, Arbeit macht Frei! (Work makes [one] free!). He began to wonder when they would receive water and food. Surely, they didn’t expect them to work on empty stomachs. He told himself that once they settled in, they would be well fed so they would have the strength to do their jobs, whatever they might be.
# # #
David opened his eyes to see a nurse in white slacks and colorful smock checking the level of liquid in the plastic bags. She turned to him, smiled and said, “Oh, you’re awake now. Okay, Mr. Berg, I’m going to check your vital signs. But, tell me, how are we feeling today?”
After a moment, the patient remembered where he was. He paused briefly, and said, “Oh, I’m just dandy. Having a ball.” His voice was gravelly, his tone sarcastic.
“No, Mr. Berg. Really now.” Her tone was soothing.
“Sorry,” he said. He sighed. “I’m not sure. The pain isn’t as bad as it was last time I was awake. It feels like it’s just under the surface, though. Know what I mean?”
She smiled. “Yes, of course. You’re getting a drip of pain killers in addition to nourishment. You should feel as though you had a few martinis.”
“I have to say, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be glad to be back here again.”
The nurse cocked her head in puzzlement. “Glad? Back here. Again?”
“Yeah. Not in that rotten dream. A really bad dream.”
She smiled. “Well, those pain killers can produce all kinds of strange dreams.” She added, “Now look. If you need help, just press this button, and somebody will be here very soon. Good night.” She hesitated for a moment. “Pleasant dreams, now.”
# # #
David was in a long line, at the head of which a German officer in black uniform and gleaming black boots stood, facing the line of prisoners. David noticed that the officer sent some men to the right and some to the left. To one side of the line, several feet back, a grey-uniformed army man was squatting, manning a machine gun. A second soldier was beside him to feed ammunition. David observed that healthy young men were sent to the right while the elderly and infirm were directed to the left. He figured those on the right would be given heavy manual labor but those on the left would be assigned less strenuous jobs.
A white-bearded old man had staggered to the head of the line, and now faced the officer. He wore a threadbare black coat and wide-brimmed black hat. The officer glanced at him and pointed to the left. The man just stood there, gawking at the officer. Or past the officer. Gazing into space. David thought the elderly prisoner seemed stunned or dull-witted. The officer shoved him toward the left, but the man moved one foot to the left simply to keep his balance, then simply stood there. The German yelled at him, “Zum links, schweinhundt,” and pointed to the left again. Still, the man just stood there, blank-faced. The officer, an air of insufferable boredom shrouding his face, rolled his icy grey eyes, sighed in exasperation, raised his hand, casually placed his Luger on the man’s forehead, and fired. The old man dropped to the muddy ground like a bundle of dirty laundry. A tremor traveled through the men on line. My God! The rumors must be true, it suddenly dawned on David. He scanned his surroundings, hoping to detect a possible escape route.
# # #
David awoke with a start. He looked around and realized that, thank God, it was just a bad dream. Again! It disturbed him that every time he had this nightmare, it continued from where it had left off. It was a serial nightmare. That had never happened before. And it seemed so real. He was perspiring profusely. He did not want to go to sleep ever again, but, of course, that was totally unrealistic. Okay, okay, he told himself, it’s only a dream. Probably caused by the pain killers.
A man who appeared to be in his fifties, dressed in a grey tweed sports jacket, pink shirt and blue necktie, strode over to David’s bedside. He introduced himself to the patient as Dr. Blackburn, Head of Surgery. The smile on his ruddy face inspired confidence. He looked down at David and spoke in soothing tones.
“Mr. Berg, you’ve had a nasty accident, as, of course, you’re now aware. I need to tell you this: There is a small blood clot within your cranium, and it’s exerting pressure on your brain.”
David, brow wrinkled in consternation, eyes wide open, wordlessly stared at the surgeon.
Noting no verbal response from the patient, Dr. Blackburn continued in gentle tones, “Well, you see, Mr. Berg, that clot must be removed, and…”
“With some blood-thinning medication?” David blurted out.
The surgeon looked at the floor for a moment, then continued, “We have been trying anti-coagulants for two days now.” The doctor sighed. “I’m afraid it’s just not working.”
“Then, what?” Beads of perspiration appeared on David’s forehead.
The smile Blackburn directed at his patient was not convincing. He explained, “We can’t take the chance of leaving that clot in place any longer, Mr. Berg. We need you to sign papers giving us permission to operate.”
David remained speechless, staring at the surgeon.
Blackburn noticed the silence, and continued, “Your chances are very good for a swift recovery.” Blackburn smiled in a failed attempt to encourage the patient.
Finally finding his tongue, David asked, “Chances? Only chances?” His pallor increased. “What, exactly, are the odds?”
“Mr. Berg, it’s very difficult to answer that question, because no two cases of this type are identical. So, no two procedures can be identical, either. The precise size and location of the clot varies from patient to patient. And this could make a difference.” Detecting the creased forehead, the narrowed eyes and the rapid breathing of his patient, the surgeon added, “Mr. Berg, whatever the odds may be, we need to perform this surgery and remove that clot. If we do not remove it, and very soon, your odds of survival will not be good, I’m afraid.”
# # #
Once he saw that elderly man shot right before his eyes, David realized that the rumors he had heard were not the fevered imaginings of paranoid minds: this was not primarily a work camp, though no doubt the stronger men would be given work. And would work until they dropped. Until I drop. In that one moment of clarity, he knew they would all sicken from extremely low caloric intake combined with heavy labor. This in all kinds of weather, wearing nothing but striped cotton pajamas. He could not help thinking that ultimately, they were all scheduled to die, one way or the other. He now believed, against his will, that the peculiar smell in the air of Auschwitz-Birkenau was that of burning flesh. Human flesh. This camp was the antechamber of the Angel of Death. The odor that hung in the air was Satan’s foul breath. He furtively scanned his surroundings. There must be some way to escape and join the partisans in the forests. I’d rather die fighting, a gun in my hands. Not like a rat in a trap.
# # #
David awoke soaked in sweat in his hospital bed. He couldn’t get that cursed dream out of his mind. It seemed so real when he was dreaming it. But, thank God, he was back in the real world, he told himself. Although the real world wasn’t that promising either. He had signed the permission for his surgery. The pain-killing drip calmed him enough to make the preparatory head-shaving bearable. I’d rather be sitting in the barber’s chair, at Charlie’s, getting a nice haircut from Randy. Unexpectedly, he chuckled at the absurdity of his thought. The effect of the drip actually was something like the nurse’s description: Three martinis on an empty stomach. Incongruously, he found himself smiling at times. The three-martini effect was pleasant. In fact, it made the hospital room, the nurses, the doctor, seem somewhat unreal, insubstantial. But David knew that when he fell asleep he would find himself in that damned nightmare again. He tried to resist sleep, but of course, that was impossible. The powder-green walls of his room seemed to fade in color, to become less distinct, wavering, receding, the color turning cloud-grey. The nurse’s voice sounded like a distant echo…
# # #
David had been breaking stones with a sledge hammer for three weeks, with only the striped cotton pajamas to fight off the cold and wind that licked at his perspiration. He was losing weight rapidly, becoming skeletal. The diet of watery cabbage soup and a thin slice of stale bread twice a day was not designed to promote health. The sledge hammer was getting harder and harder to heft. His energy level had been diminishing each day.
A soldier who held a clipboard approached him. “Number 43028?” demanded the guard. The prisoner looked at the blue tattoo on his forearm and nodded. The guard ordered, “Drop the hammer. Come!”
David felt like lifting the hammer and bringing it down on the soldier’s head, but lacked the strength to do it fast enough. Instead, he did as commanded. After all, any break from this brutal labor had to be a good thing. He plodded along after the guard, occasionally stumbling, until they came to a red brick structure the interior of which he had never seen. The guard opened the door and shoved the prisoner into the building. They proceeded down a short hallway to a door with a small plaque affixed to it that read: Herr Doctor Josef Mengele.
# # #
David’s head, which had been shaved in preparation for brain surgery, glowed under the overhead lights. Two burly male nurses lifted the patient, who was still groggy from the intravenous sedation, and shifted him to the gurney. It struck David that one of them resembled the guard in his dream. They wheeled him to an elevator. When the doors opened, they pushed the gurney through. The injection of tranquilizer was doing its task very well. The patient felt relaxed, at ease. Yet, there still remained a trace, a slender threadlike vein of terror submerged deep under the calm surface, tapping at the door of his lulled consciousness.
They exited the elevator and proceeded down a long hallway. David tried to count the overhead lights as he floated down the corridor, but his clouded mind lost track after the third. He contented himself by simply enjoying the lights passing overhead. The injection weakened the substantiality of his surroundings so that the overhead lights merged into one bright sun. The walls seemed to lose their solidity, their substance. They were fading. The drugs suffused his surroundings with an aura of unreality.
The gurney pushed open the doors of a brightly-lighted chamber. Looming over him were men and women who wore mint-green smocks and caps, and white surgical masks. The only uncovered part of them the patient could distinguish were their eyes. A delicate hand in a rubber glove passed a gleaming blade to an equally gloved but sturdier hand. David felt a needle pierce his forearm. He plunged into blackness.
# # #
David lay on a cold metal table. His arms and legs were firmly strapped to the table. A merciless bright overhead light made his eyes water. A man in a tweed jacket, white shirt and red tie leaned over the “patient.” The pleasant face bore a moustache –very un-militaristic-- which lent an air of respectability, even benevolence. This person had the appearance of a kindly family physician. In fact, he resembled David’s primary care-giver in the real world. No uniform. A break from the ubiquitous grey army uniforms, the sinister black garb of the S.S., and the stinking striped pajamas he and his fellow inmates wore. This reminder of normal civilian life calmed the prisoner for the briefest moment.
“Good morning. Allow me to introduce myself: I am Doctor Mengele.” The man spoke as he pulled on the rubber gloves, making them snap. “You are here to aid in the noble cause of furthering scientific research. We need to constantly experiment with various kinds of medical conditions that might strike our valiant troops under battle conditions.”
David couldn’t believe his ears. They were going to utilize human beings the way scientists use laboratory rats? No, no, not possible. I want to wake up! Now! Yet he knew he was not imagining this. He very distinctly heard what the doctor said. He was not hallucinating this room, this very solid metal table, cold at first, on which he was lying. The straps holding him to the table were cutting into his wrists and ankles. This could not be a delirium. This was reality. Brutal, horrific reality.
Two men in white coats appeared beside the doctor. One of them handed Mengele a white coat. David saw the blood stains on that coat, reminding him of a butcher shop. He shuddered. Mengele smiled and, in a very warm voice, said, “By volunteering for this experiment…” The doctor chuckled. “By volunteering for this experiment, you see, you are performing a noble service for the Fatherland.”
Mengele grasped the stainless-steel instrument handed to him by one of the aides. The overhead light glinted on the blade. He said, “Oh, and I’m afraid we don’t have any anesthesia for these experiments, sorry to say.” He smiled. “We have orders to conserve anesthetics for use on our brave, wounded soldiers. I’m sure you understand.”
The surgeon perceived the patient’s raised eyebrows, the rapid movement of his head from side to side, as though he couldn’t believe this was really happening. Or as though he was attempting to reject this reality.
Mengele looked down at him and repeated what he had said to other experimental subjects, “The more we do to you, the less you seem to believe we are doing it.” The surgeon shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Very well, let’s get on with this.”
David closed his eyes as though to cut off the overwhelming reality of the moment. He fervently wished he could escape to the dream world now, to that fantastic world of kindly doctors and nurses. Civilized medical people who used anesthesia in surgery. Who didn’t use human beings for experiments. And that beautiful, loving, young woman named Tracy, who lived in that picture-book little American town where people smiled and greeted him on the street, where his students were fond of him. Where he lived on a street named Liberty, and the scent of flowers combined on Main Street with the aromas of pizza, beer and grilled beef. Yes, grilled beef. Not burning human flesh.