Through the Cracks
They say its easier not to talk to them. But most people do, not nice words, or even emotionless words. Their voices are filled with more hate and spite than I've ever heard from a man. I don't speak. Not even to the other guards. Never have I given in to the urge to speak to one of the Jews. I knew I'd break, so I didn't even put myself in that position.
But then I met him. The little boy was pale and very thin. He smelt of sewage and rotting animals. He looked up at me with his big dark eyes, full of fear, as if I was the Führer, himself. A Jewish boy wouldn't see the difference. It hurt to see him look at me like that.
I wasn't always like this. I had a family once. I had parents and siblings. I was even going the marry the prettiest girl I'd ever met. That is, until I was forced to go to Warsaw. That's when I realized I had volunteered to be a guard at one of the new ghettos. They said it was the biggest in all of Germany's new empire and was in need of strong, trustworthy, young police officers like myself to guard the filth within.
Filth, they said. The stain of Germany, feeding on the other races, poisoning them. Did they really not see how mislead they were? But who was I to tell them that? I would be shot on sight for saying such a thing.
Yet somehow I wasn't thinking about my own safety when I saw that little boy. I was thinking of what would happen to him were anyone else to see him.
"You have to get out of here," I said, jerking my gun the direction of the crack he had just crawled through. "If anyone sees you, you'll be in more trouble than you're ready for."
Realization flooded the boy's eyes. How old was he? He looked at me with a whole new expression. "You're...you're not going to shoot me?"
I frowned. "No, but they will, now get back inside." I looked wearily around me, expecting another officer, or worse, one of the SS, to appear and kill him. But then again, death was not the worst thing that could happen.
The boy's gaze shifted. He was scared, but more than that, he was desperate. "Please, sir. My family is starving. I can get back in by myself. Just please, I'm begging you...let me pass." The boy dropped to his knees and clasped his hands in front of him, as if in prayer.
My heart wrenched. All he wanted was to feed his family. He couldn't have been older than eleven, and already he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. I felt my resolve disintegrate.
"Go! And tell no one we spoke. Your life is not the only one on the line here," I told him, before walking away. It took all of my strength not to turn around and watch him. But if anyone saw me staring after him and not chasing him, I would be in more trouble than I cared to be in.
My mind wandered, as I continued to patrol my stretch of wall, to where my family was. I'd left only six months ago. My parents were worried about the neighbors because they had Jewish relatives. My fiancée was scared as well. But for a much different reason.
A gust of cold wind hit me like a ton of bricks. But it was not the cold that made me pull my jacket tighter around my face. It was the stench. The smell coming from the inside of the ghetto was more than repulsive. It stunk of rotten food and dead rats. Sewage coated the streets and waste was tossed from the windows. Most of the plumbing was broken and there was no way to dispose of anything. It smelled of disease...and death. People died at every turn. I saw them cart out the bodies. Luckily I had escaped from that hellish duty; but for how much longer, I wasn't sure.
I leaned up against the cold, dark, ten foot wall and dug in my coat for a cigarette. I pulled the last one out of the pack and lit it up. I had never smoked before, but it was habit I picked up quickly from the other guards. I didn't particularly care for the taste, but the smell clogged my senses. For a few minutes I could hide from the smell of the ghetto.
I sighed deeply, exhaling a long stream of that sweet smelling relief. I closed my eyes and saw my fiancée. Her dark eyes and chocolate colored hair filled my mind. I could almost reach out and touch her. Her voice filled my ears as I listened to her say her prayers from outside her window. I had loved to hear her voice.
"Leon. Hey Leon!"
My name snapped me out of my daydreams, and I slowly opened my eyes to see Paul standing in front of me. He looked stiff and dark bags circled his eyes.
"What?" I asked. I didn't mean to be sharp, but no one was particularly kind to others around here anymore.
"You can't be sleeping out here Leon," he told me, eyes flicking back and forth nervously. "One of the SS guys is on his way around."
That perked me up. Those guys were dangerous and everyone knew it. I thanked Paul before heading back over to the center of my stretch of wall. I put out my cigarette and willed with all my might that the Jewish boy wouldn't try to get back inside the wall just yet.
The SS soldier came and he went. They didn't care about us. But when they were in a bad mood, you did not want to cross them.
The night wore on and I started to regret smoking my last cigarette. The smell always got worse at night. Or maybe it was that everything got worse at night. I stopped at that crack in the wall where the boy had slipped out. I crouched down and peered inside. Immediately I wished I hadn't, but it was too late.
My eyes were glued to what I saw. This part of the city was nothing like I had remembered it. It was like looking into a different world. The smell was even worse here. The streets were covered in sewage and a half-eaten rat carcass was next to my face on the other side. I could see one of the members of the Jewish Order Service patrolling a little way away. He was tapping his only weapon, a baton, against his hand as he walked.
For a split second I saw two children whip around a corner. They were probably scrounging for scraps. Suddenly I heard a voice behind me.
I stood up quickly and whipped around to see the Jewish boy staring up at me. His flimsy coat was stuffed with something but I did not care to find out what it was. I moved and the boy started to flatten his thin body into the crevice. Once he was inside, he started to run off, but I reached in and grabbed his sleeve.
"Wait!" I said in a hushed whisper. He turned back and looked at me. "Do you know if there is a Hannah Raedar in there?"
The boy pulled his sleeve from my grip and said, "There are a lot of Jews named Hannah, sir." Without saying another word, he turned and ran at full speed down the dirty streets of the ghetto.
I watched him until he was out of sight before straightening up and leaning against the wall once more. My mind slipped back into oblivion.
I could hear my beautiful Hannah's voice float down to me from her window.
"Oh Lord, we need you more than ever," her soft voice would say, as she spoke quietly to her God. "Things for your people are as treacherous as they were in Moses' day." When she stopped speaking, I looked up to see her face above mine. "What are you doing here Leon?" she asked. "Don't you know it's rude to listen outside a girl's window?"
I grinned. "Well I know how to gain your forgiveness," I said slyly, before reaching up and kissing her on the cheek. Hannah giggled and climbed out of her window. She sat next to me and slipped her hand into mine.
"Leon," she said, running her hand over the arm of my new police uniform. "You know times are changing don't you? Are you sure you still want to marry me?"
I smiled and took her hand.
"The Führer himself couldn't stop me."