Kicked. Squirmed. Flailed my arms, scratched, and bit.
But there was no use fighting against them. There was three of them and only one of me. And I couldn't win. It was unfair. But since when was my life ever fair in the first place?
I thrashed even more as they fought to throw me down; I was berserk, my actions fueled by pure determination with a touch of wild anger. They grunted and strained, trying to hold on to my crazy little body, but I didn't relent. I won't let them have me—not without a fight I won't. I could've just gone down calmly, like any good person of my kind would've done, but I'm not necessarily good, nor will I give those dogs the satisfaction of knowing that I knew they completely owned and ruled my life. I was nothing but an animal to them, so an animal I would be. A wild and raging one. One that could not be contained easily. A monster, almost. I was a monster, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
Everything around me was almost nonexistent. The roar of the crowd, the sneers upon their grotesque faces which were distorted with excitement—everything. Only my three aggressors were there. And me. It was me versus them, and it was a desperate battle. One grabbed for my head in a wild attempt to cover my mouth and put my gnashing fangs out of commission, but I snapped at his hand convulsively. He-who-didn't-want-to-get-bit backed off for a quick second giving me ample seconds to try and escape. I squirmed, forcing every muscle of my poor, tired, weak body to work to my advantage, but his partner who was in back of me had an unforgiving grip on my both my arms, which were thrust behind me. I gave out a cry of immense rage and frustration, but I knew from the beginning that it was hopeless. I was simply too weak to fight all three of them, and like the bullies they were, they had ganged up on me, wholly aware of this. Curse starvation, not eating for three days… Curse living where I lived, and the lifestyle I endured. Curse being who I was, and for being here. I had no place here. Not in this world. Not with these people. Perhaps that was why they were trying to wipe us out.
My energy was running out. They knew it and they handled me even rougher. It was retaliation, really, for the fight I had given them. The one behind me immobilized me, wrapping his arms around my little body and pressing me against his own tightly. I could feel his hot breath against my neck; he was exhausted, but he had won. Curse him. Curse every single one of them.
My breath exited through my mouth through shallow pants. Everything felt odd. My legs were rubbery and I could hardly stand by myself: the fight had cost me. My surroundings looked too detailed; I could see the individual hairs on a man's face, each thread on their feldgrau greatcoats. They gave me no time to brood over my queer feelings. Two of them took each of my arms and with the third one leading, they half-walked, half-dragged me closer to the frenzied crowd of bystanders who had only come to watch my humiliation. Their roar was deafening—overwhelming, almost. I wanted to disappear before the angry faces and leave them screaming at nothing.
Things became a blur; I was hardly paying attention. My boots slipped on the icy cobblestone pavement and then I was aware that I was crashing to the ground. Cold wetness seeped through my jacket and I did my best to suppress a groan of pain. As I said earlier, I would not give my tormenters the satisfaction of knowing I was in misery. The lead one shouted at me, threatening to hit me if I didn't move fast enough. I ignored every word he said. I simply didn't care. I'd do anything to make their lives a little harder even if it meant endangering my own. He must've seen the light of battle and pure defiance in my eyes, for next he kicked me. His boot caught me hard in the side; I collapsed but held my tongue and refused to cry out as the pain spread throughout my body. He lashed out at me again for my slowness, and then I was choked by the collar of my jacket as one of his comrades hauled me up to my feet and marched me forward once more.
Minuten passed. Finally I came to the center of the raging crowd, where here I would be humiliated and shamed in front of countless faces. I stared back at them, my emotionless eyes meeting their maddened ones. Something wet, warm, and sticky splashed against the side of my face; I had been spat on. Angrily I spat back in the direction the saliva had come; unfortunately one of them had been watching me and I saw as his hand pulled back and he struck me. My neck twisted painfully to the side and my left cheek burned, but I stood tall and proud through the abuse. Then I saw vaguely through the corner of my eye the second one lift the butt of his rifle. There was a crack, and then a dull throbbing at my right temple, which immediately exploded into a burst of bloody pain. It was unbearable. My legs shook and everything went foggy. My skull felt as if it were going to crack open; I couldn't move. And then I was aware that I was falling. Falling to my knees. Falling into darkness. I had to fight it. I had to fight against the little black fingers of unconsciousness that were pulling me down. I was barely alive. I had to fight it. Stay awake. Stay—
I was on the ground. The blackness seeped around the edges of my vision, bringing me closer to the welcoming, beckoning night. All I could concentrate on was the pain. The horrible fiery pain which seared and consumed my entire body. I longed to give into the dark, but I kept willing myself to resist. To resist the urges—
And then there was complete darkness.
Light. I came to and it was cold. Too cold. And wet. But cold. My body was numb. I was splayed out on the ground. But in what? Coldness. Cold whiteness. Snow. I was lying in snow. And it was cold. I strained to lift my head. It was too heavy. And too much in pain. And I was too cold. I couldn't move. I was too weak. Why was it so cold?
My coat was gone. My shirt, too. The snow was numbing against my skin; soon it was too cold to even feel. Exposed for just a few minutes to the harsh elements, winter had deadened me to its pain. I lifted my eyes. I could still see the people around me, and my three enemies. The lead one knelt down to my side, blocking my view and smiling at me even though his eyes were mocking and cruel. He played with my long, curly blond sidelocks with his gloved hands; even though he was almost creepily child-like in his actions, he pulled at them strongly and I knew he was doing it to hurt me; I resisted the urge to wince. He, seeing this, grabbed more handfuls of my peyos and tugged even harder.
"Jude, Jude," he called to me in a sing-song voice. He was still smiling, but his blue eyes were cold. "Am I hurting you, poor Jude? Would you like the big, mean Nazi to leave you alone, Jude?"
He pulled at them again. I could barely hear the crowd around me: some in it were still yelling; others were laughing at my tormentor's silly antics and at my demise, but I could barely concentrate on them. Instead, I focused on the German in front of me and said nothing to him. I wouldn't be the butt of his unusual and sadistic games. And besides, I was too tired. All I wanted to do was sleep and sink into the darkness to forget this pain…this cold…this day. I kept my eyes on his and watched as my nonexistent response frustrated him. I was a burden from the beginning, and that's how I had wanted it to be. It was my little attempt at revenge.
The German now regarded me, tilting his head to the side in mock concern. "Are you alive?" he asked, now patting my head in a sickeningly loving manner. "Or are you dead? Starb mein kleiner Jude?"
I still didn't reply. He deserved no reply from me, nor would he extract it from me by any means. It didn't matter. I knew that wouldn't stop them and their "fun". He said to one lanky comrade, "Hans, I think he is dead. Why don't you check?"
I heard a ruffling of something—probably a greatcoat—and then the sound of boots crunching through snow, coming towards me. I knew what was coming. I had heard stories of it from other fellow Juden and now it was my turn. I shut my eyes and gritted my teeth and waited for it to come. I didn't have to wait long.
I heard a crack and then felt a fiery stinging at my back. It was so bad…the pain. It was crippling. I heard the noise again and then once again felt the searing burn. I longed to arch my back, to writhe in agony, but I forced myself not to. I gripped at the ground, at the snow, forcing myself not to cry out loud. All the while, the German in front of me kept staring at me with a smile upon his face.
Whipped. I was being whipped. Why? Was it because I was a bad person? Of course not. It was because I was me. I was being punished for being who I am.
There was the third lash from the whip.
And then the fourth.
I lost track of them. I lost track of everything.
I shut my eyes closed tight, squeezing them in a futile attempt to get rid of the pain. I bit my tongue until it bled. The metallic taste of plasma filled my mouth and I sucked on it hungrily. I did anything to make me forget. Anything. I opened my eyes again and met the blue ones of the smiling German. I ground my jaws and only grunted softly as the whip came down again. However, I surprised both myself and the staring one when I felt silent tears of anguish roll down my cheeks. This caused his smile to broaden.
"Look, look," he called to his friends and the people watching. "He's crying." Then he patted my head again, bringing his face closer to mine. I shuddered under his grasp every time the leather connected with my stinging body. "Does it hurt?" he whispered in my ear. I didn't respond. "Do you want me to make Hans stop?"
It came down again. Tears were coming at a regular pace now, as well as a half-stifled cry of pain that always managed to escape my lips. But I still would not say anything.
"Zähl," he commanded me. He petted me again. "Count your lashes for poor Hans so he won't lose track."
I closed my eyes. Never. Never would I do that.
Never would I play their games.
Never would I beg for their mercy.
Never would I admit that they were my masters by counting for them, becoming their slave: their pet dog.
The whip came down harder. Harder and faster. My cries got louder and the German's smile got wider.
"Come," he said, running his hands through my hair. "Come, mein kleiner Jude. Count and you will be free. Zähl."
Biting my tongue was no longer working. The pain was too unbearable. The cold did nothing to soothe my pain—the snow and winter were outmatched against my fire. My eyes stung. I was crying hard now. Silently, but nonetheless hard. I gripped the ground tightly, wishing it would all be over. Or that I would just simply die. One or the other.
I received another lash. This one felt exceptionally bad. My back suddenly felt wet and I could feel something drip. I knew that it had been torn open. The wetness was blood. And then it came down on that one spot again and I screamed, "Eins."
Then it came down again: number two.
And it went on and on. It became habitual: I would feel and hear the crack of the whip, and then through pure torment scream out its number. When my words became undecipherable through my crying, I received ten more strokes. After the thirtieth one, I stopped paying attention. I was numb. I no longer even part of my body: I was just a poor soul. A poor lost soul who was watching the humiliation of a young boy of only seventeen. I wasn't me anymore.
Sekunde turned into Minuten, and the Minuten felt like hours. I was hot despite the cold, and utterly tired. Saying the numbers became a burden. The flanks of my bleeding, cut body heaved up and down: I was out of breath. The tears and pain had stopped long ago, and now the only thing I felt was exhaustion. I didn't even wince as the whip connected one more time. The still-smiling German looked at me. No number had come from my mouth. My throat was raw and dry. I gasped for breath. He cocked his head in that familiar way again.
"Are you tired?" he asked. "Is my little one weary?"
Slowly my eyes met his. I said nothing, however, and saved my energy. He took my chin in his gloved palm and lifted my head so he could get a better look at me.
"The last number," he told me, eyes bright with sadism. "Say it. Say the last number and you will be free."
I kept looking at him. I was limp in his hands. Something stirred in my throat: maybe a word? It died in my mouth. Instead I just sighed deeply and wished they would be done with me…but I knew they wouldn't until they taught me a lesson: They were my superiors. Then the whip came down again.
"Vierundfünfzig," I whispered. I didn't recognize my voice.
I shuddered. Would the saving word be able to come out? I struggled, but slowly it came.
"Fünfundfünfzig," I said. Fifty-five. Fifty-five lashings. The German looked at me.
"Louder," he commanded, "so everyone can hear you."
It was another act of degradation. Normally I wouldn't play these games…but I was so desperate for them to leave…that I'd do anything to get them to go.
"Fünfundfünfzig," I said again. What was wrong with me? My voice was getting softer. I could barely hear it. Did I even have a voice left? The German gripped me harder. My jaw hurt. He was waiting for me to respond. I breathed heavily, trying to slow down my trembling flanks, and felt something arise from the pit of my stomach. It fluttered in my lungs, tickled my throat, and came out as desperate cry, one tinged with immense pain and sorrow.
"Fünfundfünfzig," I screamed for all the world to hear. Even the angry watching crowd calmed a little at my outburst. I sunk back down into the German's hand, and from there he released me back into the snow. I welcomed the freezing ice. He stood up and looked at me, and then I didn't even grunt when he kicked me hard again. Then I felt wet again and I knew he had spat on my face. He had no departing words—he didn't need any. I had felt his anger and his hatred all throughout my torment. I lay there breathing shallowly in the snow as he gathered his subordinates and marched them off. Hans and Friedhelm were their names. Friedhelm had given me a look as he walked off. I believe it was one of pity. Their commander, my smiling German, was Ludolf. I swore I would never forget dear Ludolf.
The crowd dispersed too, some coming by to curse at me, others to sneer and otherwise keep going. A few of them gave threats, but I knew they were empty. They were just mad. Mad at me. Mad at people like me. It wasn't our fault for anything that had happened earlier throughout Deutschland history, but who were they to do their research? They were just angry and needed someone to blame.
Then I was alone, laying there in the snow, pain coming back twofold now that there was nothing there to take my mind off of it. Out in the distance I could see my coat lying on the cobblestone pavement. It was too far away, and no matter how much I tried, I simply couldn't move. I was frozen in time. The icy wetness burned my skin now. It was cold again. Too cold. I shivered, but stayed.
Afternoon turned into evening. Evening into nighttime.
I was ice now, still lying there, broken and lost. Snow was supposed to be an insulator despite its coldness, but it was saving me no heat from the bitter German winter. My stomach growled and it felt cavernous. I hadn't eaten in three days and hunger was a regular feeling for me now. Maybe this is what death felt like: a deep, cold, unbearable emptiness that seeped through the very marrows of your bone, right down to your little tired heart. I wanted to die now. I felt so tired. All I wanted to do was sleep.
And then I heard footsteps. Booted ones. Another German. I was in for more trouble. It was past curfew. I was supposed to be inside with my family by nightfall, but instead, I was stranded out here.
I tried to sink further down into the snow. No prevail. The person stopped before me. I could barely see through the dim streetlight a bespectacled face and a spot of blond hair that belonged to a Nazi. I looked up at him as he looked down at me. I was even more surprised when he knelt down to my side and began gently shaking me. His hands were warm as he gripped my arms. He had gloves on.
"Jude," he called to me. "Jude. Are you alive? Bist du lebendig?"
I watched him suspiciously. I wasn't sure to respond or not. What did he want with me? I was wary of their games and tricks. I saw as he removed his gloves, and felt as he felt my arm and ran his fingers lightly along my scarred back. I winced under his touch.
"You won't survive out here," he told me, talking more to himself than to me. "Not in this cold. You're freezing. You're ice. And you're still bleeding." Then he studied me, sitting back to see if I would say anything. I didn't. I still didn't trust him, nor did I know what to think of him. I wanted him to leave me to die in peace, but he wouldn't go. My stomach churned in a mix of embarrassment and anger as he took a yielding hand and ran it through my hair, twirling his fingers around through my peyos. My face grew hot. Once again, I felt like the Germans' pet, and I hated it. Something rumbled deep within my throat: I growled. He recoiled and then looked at me once more.
"I can understand if you're angry at me," he whispered. Then he sighed. "I'm so sorry, Jude. Es tut mir leid." I stared back at him. Just what was he insinuating? I was suddenly too tired to care. I sunk back into the snow and tried to blend into the whiteness. Leave me, I willed him. Leave me.
But he wouldn't. I shuddered as I felt something heavy fall on top of me, and then immediate warmth. My eyes met his as he wrapped his greatcoat around me, encasing me in its warmth. Then I looked at his uniform. Feldgrau, with twin silver bolts on the right side of his collar, and a small skull on the left—it was the Totenkopf. Both marked him as an SS man. And then his face suddenly looked familiar and I thought I realized him. Friedhelm from before?
After bundling me up in his Mantel, he walked over to the side and collected my coat, too. Then he also draped this over me. He was not too much older than me—probably in his early twenties.
"Can you stand up?" he asked. "Or walk?" He didn't give me time to respond, and I wasn't going to anyway. He simply bent over, took me and the coats in his arms, and picked me up. I knew I was a disgrace. I was naught but skin and bones, weighing almost nothing. Starvation was a friend of mine. But it didn't matter. I knew, somehow, that even if I had weighed more, Friedhelm would've found a way to move me anyway. And this bothered me greatly. What did he want from me? What were his motives?
Something welled up in my throat again: it was only one little word, but very powerful nonetheless. "…Why?" Then I paused, not believing myself. Was that my little voice? It was so weak. Nothing compared to what I once had. Now it went with who I was: a frail sickly thing barely hanging onto dear life—a nothing.
"It was my first day," Friedhelm told me. He looked down at me. I looked up at him. "I was being bled, really. Bled for the war against the undesirables. They spotted you and took you out of the ghetto just for me." Then he smiled. I saw nothing funny about that. It was fate then. Fate had brought me here. Fate had crippled me and I wasn't too happy with that right now. "Could I not help but feel guilty for you?" he went on. I turned my head away. I couldn't believe what he was saying. Since when was there such a thing as a remorseful Nazi? There was no such thing. They simply didn't exist. Not in this world. If they did, then where were they? Why haven't they done anything to stop what's going on? Why were they such…cowards?
"Can you forgive me?" he asked.
Backwards. Everything was backwards. A war against civilians. A Nazi who was regretful. A Jew lending forgiveness to an SS soldier. It was backwards. All of it. Get me out of this topsy-turvy kaleidoscope called life.
"Please?" he went on again. "Bitte? It's the least I can do. Let me take you closer to your home."
I snorted. A white gas left my nostrils, hanging in the air like a wraith.
"The ghetto is not a home," I snapped. Friedhelm said nothing. He knew this. Our homes had simply been taken away from us. What was he to say to me now? My sharp remark had brought out a very awkward answer. He knew he simply couldn't do anything about my problem, so he didn't respond. I sighed. Neither of us were going to survive the war. Not like this. As I much as I didn't want to admit it, I needed his help, and ironically, he needed mine. I wasn't going to survive this cold, barren night out in the snow, and he wasn't going to survive either, not without someone to save and help get rid of his guilt. It was odd feeling—this feeling of reliance—, especially since our scenario was so backwards.
I laid back and looked at him. A very rare smile crossed my face—for I had nothing to smile about—and he gave me one back in return.
"Ja, ja," I said. "Alright…"
We needed each other.