Four years of war. Enough time for it to seep in to the very bones of Europe. Chaos and death fell like a shadow on the western world. Civilians began to evacuate Berlin because of the air raids. Words and names became weighted, names that would forever stain the pages of history; Auswitch, Dachau, Zyklon B, SS, Master Race, Genocide.
Lukas realized in time that Sachsenhausen wasn't just a prison. It wasn't just a source of labor for the factories. It was an insufferable hell. The inmates weren't all political prisoners or Jews. They were civilians; foreign and local, young and old. Gypsies, Soviets, Poles, anyone who didn't fit the Aryan mold. One group stood out to Lukas beyond all the others—the inverted pink triangles struck him like a knife each time he glimpsed them standing for roll call on the concrete parade ground.
Sachsenhausen was far from the largest concentration camp in Europe, but it was one of the first. It was supposed to lead by example in its ruthless efficiency. Everything from aircraft manufacturing to shoe quality testing was executed at the work camp. In 1943 the gas chamber and crematory were built in order to fit the need for expanding executions. As the system saw it, why should those unable to work fill up space? Why should they be allowed to live?
Lukas wasn't just in hell. He was collecting a paycheck. He had become a doctor to heal people, not hurt. To save lives, not assist in their taking. He did his work, stoic and still, masking his horror, his resentment, and his fear.
"Twins." The head doctor announced to his staff. As the others were spurred to movement, Lukas' mouth went dry. He had read the procedures sent over by Dr. Mengele. The instructions to exam, photograph, to simultaneously kill and then dissect.
The pair he was ordered to work on were seventeen year old boys, both equally handsome, both equally terrified. Cleaned and stripped naked, measurements of their every feature were carefully noted. Photographs of the pair standing sitting, stretching. After days of this meticulous work, hair follicle samples were taken and the anonymous pair was shaved bare. Lukas assisted with torturous tests exposing them to extreme temperatures, examining their orifices, taking tissue samples without anesthetic, forcefully collecting bodily fluids.
When they were finished with all the use they could scrape out of their living subjects, Lukas and another SS physician took the sniveling, broken pair, strapped them down, and with perfectly rehearsed timing, injected both hearts with chloroform. With the steady, practiced hand of a surgeon, Lukas cut out organs and sealed them to be shipped off to a research facility.
It was science. He did it in the name of science. Science, not murder.
Adele did not bother to stir herself when she heard the unlocking of the front door. Her husband's train would have pulled into the station late…if she pretended to sleep she could put off facing him until the morning.
She tensed as her husband flicked the table lamp on and rustled around the room. She felt, with her eyes shut tight, him slide between the sheets and turn the lamp off. Was she imagining it, or did she really hear her husband's stifled sobs?
His unshaven face, his rheumy eyes, his parched throat. He remained shrouded in the dimmest light, broken only by the flashes of sunlight that strained in through the slats of the rail car. There was no room to exhale without disturbing someone, so packed were they. No room to sit or lie down. Stench and heat and claustrophobia mixed with the inconsolable cries of small children. How many days? How many miles did the train cover as it raced back into Germany?
The relief was so intense when they finally pulled to a stop. At least they could finally be free of this car, this space. Leave everything behind, they were instructed. That was alright, Peter thought. He had nothing left to bring. They were marched in rows and files into the gates of Sachsenhausen. Arbeit Macht Freiwas the imposing message in the ironwork. Work makes you free.
Peter was gripped with dread as he shuffled into the camp, a mere fleck in the sea of humans. His eyes drunk in all they could as quickly as possible, from the barbed wire and guard towers to the parade ground and was thankful he did not have anyone with him. He did not have the fear of being separated, of losing a child or a brother or a father in the confusion of the night. Peter was alone. Surrounded by hundreds and all alone.
An SS man asked him brief questions. "Age? Occupation?" 36, musician, he replied. Why lie? There was such turmoil around him, such chaos and fear in the eyes of the Jews. Confusion, too. Were some of these people to die here this very night? The freshly constructed crematoriums were billowing smoke and ash, the scent permeating the air. All Peter knew was this was not his fate tonight.
Naked with hundreds of other men. A trickling shower, trying to scrape off the filth that coated his skin. A haircut, shaved completely bald. New clothes, striped blue, with a matching cap. A number, and a pink triangle.
Huddled in the far corner of the rows of bunks that night, Peter drew his limbs in close and pretended he did not exist. How long had it been since he last saw his family? He tried to bring back the images of his mother and sister in his mind's eye, but instead images of shame, guilt, and regret flooded in. He wanted to remember the farm, the uncle who played the part of father, the nights filled with music. Peter knew that this place would be his grave. After all, he was a despicable criminal. Even if the war ended tomorrow, he still would not be free.
Peter had been cast into a world of torture and work. The callous SS officers did not hesitate to shoot or maim the disposable workforce. Every morning he stood for roll call, straight and still, not drawing unwanted attention. Then the long hours of brutal work, until one could collapse from exhaustion.
He worked in the brickworks at first. It was unskilled labor to be sure, but it was by no means easy work. Peter had been in good physical condition when he first arrived at the camp, after the months of military training and service. But after meager rations of bread, soup and a lucky tin of coffee a day, the heavy labor was taking its toll on him. He could feel himself withering away as the days passed by. The other prisoners, and especially the guards, did not make this place any more bearable. There was a hierarchy firmly set in place. Those that managed to secure an ounce of power over others wielded it without discrimination.
He was homosexuell. He was marked as such by an inverted pink triangle sewn to the left breast of the striped uniform. The painful secret many worked so hard to conceal was now there for all to see. The pink triangle made him a victim among victims. The labels on all the uniforms; green for criminal, red for political prisoner, black for unsocial, and two overlapped yellow triangles forming a star for Jews, were brilliant in crafting divisions among the prisoners. It became clear to Peter that not only the guards and officers were his enemies, but also the shadows of humanity forced to live and work in squalor—those terrified and angry and ready to cling to the semblance of power or control.
There was always one particular guard that seemed to single Peter out for torment, both psychological and physical. Beaten and shamed for no reason, broken down and starving. It seemed as though all of the happy moments of his past had been thrown into shadow, the color of his existence bleached into tones of grey and black and red.
The moment of reprieve came when he was called upon to join the Lagerkapellen. The camp orchestra. Scraped together from amateur and ex-professional musician prisoners and spare, borrowed, discordant instruments the small troupe of men played at the whim of the SS. In time he was switched from the laborious brickworks to the less strenuous manufacturing of electrical components, and was often called back to the camp for rehearsals or impromptu performances. Even in this sorriest of existences, Peter found some joy in once again being able to play the cello. Even if it was out of tune and poorly weathered, and probably had belonged to a freshly dead soul, Peter relished in the familiarity of the shape and sound and texture. The occasions for which they were called upon to perform however, ranged from austere to ironic to macabre.
Holding a stringed instrument was the sanity he craved within the triangular walls of the camp. He viewed it as his last remaining connection to his life before the war, and before his world ended.
November, 1943. It was not the first time Berlin had been in the center of air raids. It was, however, the start of the first bombing campaign to seriously damage the capital city. It was the first time Adele Heschel feared for her safety, and the safety of her son. The raids continued month after month, tearing apart the city.
Adele knew it was time to start making very difficult decisions. The quality of her married life, the hazardous bombs and firestorms, and the life of her son all weighed heavily on her. She needed guidance.
Greta Koffel was an older divorcee, a no nonsense woman who was never shy to talk about any subject, no matter how personal. She believed honesty was the best policy in every case, and that sympathy and empathy were over rated. Tell her a secret though, and she would take it to her grave. Her dishwater colored hair was always back in a severe bun, and her smile was anything but warm. Greta was Adele's best friend during the past few years of her marriage, and her closest confidante.
"Greta, I don't know what the right thing to do is anymore," Adele confessed one dreary afternoon. Six-year old Max was trying to squirm out of her lap, embarrassed to be held so close by his mother. She released him, and followed the boy with her eyes as he returned to his play. "He's almost school aged now. Time seems to pass so quickly," she sighed.
"Do you love him?"
"My husband? Yes."
"Does he love you?" Greta pried.
"I've never been sure. Not ever."
"Don't ever think you can try to change a man, Adele. They are too pig-headed to listen to any sound advice. If you aren't happy and haven't been, nothing is going to come along and make things better. Not in a million years."
"I think he might be having an affair, Greta," she confessed her fear in a quiet voice.
"Do you have the proof?"
"No, but he's gone for weeks at a time for his job, and when he returns he doesn't want to..." she tapered off, embarrassed by this most private confession.
"Maybe he's impotent." Greta suggested bluntly.
"He's 33, Greta."
"I've heard of stranger things. So say he is an adulterer. Are you going to put up with it to make sure your son has a good image of his father? Because that is the stupidest thing I have ever heard."
"I don't know what to do. And I'm afraid. I don't want to stay in Berlin anymore. It isn't safe."
"You are dead right about that. If I had anywhere else to go, you think I'd still be in the city?"
"Sometimes I hear him crying at night. I've never acknowledged that I've heard, and I've never asked him about it. But it scares me, Greta. He scares me."
Lukas had no idea how to be a father, or even a husband. All he knew of family was the scars in his mind of a tyrannical father and a mother too afraid to speak her mind. His son, a blonde-haired blue eyed boy with the potential to be everything the NSDAP stood for, confounded him. Lukas did not know how to be present in the boy's life, to provide discipline and example when his own life was tearing apart at the seams.
On one of the rarest of occasions when Lukas was home with Max, his wife preoccupied elsewhere, the earnest little boy looked to him and asked,
"What is an adulterer?"
"Adulterer. I heard mamma talking to her friend the other day, and she said you must be one." Max explained to him, a questioning look in his eyes. Lukas was completely taken aback. What should he tell his son? How should he react to Adele's gossip, when it had been years since any extramarital affair had taken place? Lukas spoke slowly, trying to be vague enough and honest enough not to get into more trouble.
"An adulterer is someone who doesn't respect their spouse the way they should, because they love someone else. Your mother is wrong, though. I respect her very much." Lukas thought that that would be enough, and turned back to his research files.
"Why do you fight then?"
"You're never nice to mamma." Lukas burned with shame internally, but didn't react to Max's childish accusation.
"I have a stressful job, Max. I'm a doctor and scientist, and sometimes I have to do difficult things."
"Like fix people when they are broken?"
"Yes. The saddest part is not everyone can be fixed. Some people are born wrong. We lose people. Sacrifices are made." Lukas was drawn out of the conversation for the briefest moment, remembering the sick and elderly led like cattle to the slaughter, poisonous gas released into a chamber, the ash settling from the sky. The beds in the infirmary were limited. If a patient did not heal or improve within a certain amount of time, they were simply shot.
"It's hard to step out of that world when I come home, Max. It's hard to be happy for you and your mother." Lukas looked to his son, wanting the boy to impart some unconventional wisdom, but Max's attention had returned to his toys and his sing-song mumbling.
"I'm not having an affair, Adele." He whispered in the dark of the bedroom. He heard his wife's breath halt in her throat, and her body move away from him.
"Don't lie to me."
"I've never been with another woman."
"I know how to fit the pieces together, Lukas. Why can't you just be a man and admit it?" Lukas didn't answer in his wife. In the years since their son was born, their relationship had been passive aggressive, subtly straining at the seams. Neither of them were happy, even Max could tell as much, but what was there to do?
"I want to leave, Lukas," Adele whispered. "The air raids are getting worse."
"You would just take Max and evacuate? You know I need to stay by Oranienburg."
"Yes. Lukas, I've tried to pretend that this marriage can be salvaged…" Adele confessed, "but you are a stranger to us."
Lukas was struck with the urge to admit everything to his wife. That he was trapped in a never-realized past, that he committed unspeakable atrocities week to week, that there was a very clear reason why he didn't love her, and stopped making love to her. The urge passed, however, and the two of them drifted to sleep, the palpable tension hanging over them.
Lukas saw him that day. He saw the gaunt man in the corner of the infirmary, covered in bruises, with a pink triangle on his shirt. The paperwork said he was there for sterilization research. He saw him all right, but did not approach him, or look in his eyes, or touch his arm…not until every other physician and guard had gone. He told his colleagues he would take the night shift, not to worry about him, he wasn't tired. Alone among the white tile and rows of cots, ignoring the patients that slept all around, Lukas walked up to the research subject.
Neither spoke. Time stopped having meaning as the two took in every detail of the other, trying to reconcile what they saw with their memories.
"Is it really you, Peter?" Lukas asked at last. The prisoner stared at him with hollow eyes. He licked his chapped lips and spoke in a voice still so familiar.
"One and the same."
"Can you tell me how…how you ended up here?"
"How do you mean?"
"I lost you. For years, no letters or notice of your whereabouts. You don't know how hard it has been for me—"
"For you? Hard for you, you sycophantic Nazi? I was the one who got arrested for what I am, beaten, tortured, worked half to death in this sorry hell—but by all means, it was hard for you, going home every week to your home, to Adele, to your life."
"I'm not going to apologize. It would be meaningless. You must already know how sorry I am. Tell me what happened after you were drafted."
"I was in the army then. After months of training I was sent to the eastern front, fighting the Soviets like those here in the camp…" Peter recounted the story of the last few years of his life to his old lover. He did not lie or sugar coat anything. After all, why should he? He no longer felt shame, and he wasn't looking to protect the feelings of a man who had turned himself into a cruel and mindless follower. Or had he always been that way? "They sent me here. I became a pink triangle, a number, someone they could force to march all day, work until I collapsed from exhaustion. No one stops them. It could be worse, I suppose. It's just hard to imagine anything worse than where I am now."
"Oh," was all Lukas could say. The entire room smelled of death and pain, fitting for both men's moods. "That's…oh." Was he supposed to comfort his emaciated friend? I'm sorry you were castrated and tortured for not compromising yourself like I did. I'm sorry I'm your enemy.
"And you, Lukas? How is the life of a Nazi doctor treating you?" Lukas looked at Peter, then down at his own hands.
"I witness the results of cruelty in this camp every day. As doctors, we could save so many lives. Instead, we take them. And the medical experimentation…I try to tell myself at night that I am only following orders, that I'm not responsible, or that it is for scientific growth…Peter, I'm a murderer. I know I have to live with that, but I can't. And Adele and my son…God, I just keep repeating the same mistakes. You've suffered for what you are, Peter. I've caused suffering by pretending to be something I'm not. Even if I live forever, I could never forgive myself for the atrocities I've committed." The two sat together in silence, dwelling on the gravity of their situations.
"Can I ask a favor of you?" Peter whispered.
"I want to help you. Ask me anything."
"Kill me." The request fell from his lips, and the color drained from Lukas' face.
"Please, I want to escape. I know you'd be able to make it quick. Kill me, before I die in this place anyway. I want to die feeling human, Lukas."
"You owe it to me." Peter rebuked. Tears began to fall from Lukas' eyes. Nothing moved, nothing breathed. This was his punishment, he thought. To have the man he once loved ask to die.
"Alright. I'll do it." Lukas walked to the cupboards, shaking, trying in vain to brush away his tears. Chemistry and logic fled from his mind as he tried to come up with a quick, painless, and undetectable way to end his love's life, but the fear of guards pushed him to haste. He grabbed an entire bottle of morphine pills and took it back to Peter's side.
"And you are sure? Positively and without a doubt?"
"I've no more reason to stay in this life. I would promise to meet again in heaven, but it is clear to me that God is dead," Peter whispered. Luke brushed his fingertips along his chest, trying to think of anything to say. Lukas took a pill from the little glass bottle and placed it in Peter's mouth.
"Water?" Peter asked. Lukas stumbled to the sink, his hands shaking as he filled a glass tumbler and brought it back to his bedside. Peter accepted the glass, and swallowed the first pill.
"How many more?"
"Drowsiness will set in quickly, followed by a weakened pulse and labored breathing—with your weight, twenty or so ought to be more than enough. You'll be black to the world." Tears left tracks down Peter's grimy face.
"I loved you for so long," Peter confessed. "All these years, I didn't think I would ever see you again." He swallowed another pill…and another. Lukas reached out a hand to stop him, and leaned in to kiss his damaged, vomit stained lips. Lukas was aware of Peter's breath growing more ragged, his eyes drooping. Soon the only person he had loved…Lukas would have to force his unconscious form to swallow more to make sure he didn't survive.
Within the hour, Lukas was sitting at the bedside of a corpse. He stopped his crying as best as he could, and brought the white sheet over the entirety of Peter Merrill's body. In the morning it would be moved into the morgue. By nightfall it would be sent to the crematorium to be disposed of completely.
"When will we see father again?" Max asked with barely a hint of concern. The bags were packed, the train tickets secured. It was final. Adele and Max were leaving, and his eight years of marriage were coming to an end. Lukas felt a heavy weight settle in his chest as he lied to his son.
"Soon, very soon. Now run along and make sure you have all your toys." Max scampered out of the room, leaving Lukas and Adele alone to say their goodbyes.
"Why didn't you tell him the truth?" Adele asked bluntly.
"The plan is to find both of you again after the war. The war could be over very soon," Lukas hedged.
"Sometimes I feel as if it will never end."
"Max has seen so little of me. It is possible I will fade in his memory. It is possible he won't even miss my presence."
"I think that would be for the best," Adele said, aware of the cruel sting of her words. "I've telephoned my cousin; he is far in the countryside, so there is no need to worry over our wellbeing." Lukas moved to hand his wife her packed suitcase.
"I guess this is goodbye, then." Lukas' eyes searched Adele for some sort of forgiveness, forgiveness she was not willing to give. He reached out to touch her cheek but she stepped away.
"I had better leave now. Max and I will miss the train."
"It's a far cry too late for that."
"No. I mean to say I am sorry I couldn't love you the way you deserved."
Lukas watched the two walk out of the house; he saw his son hovering on the threshold, confusion and doubt etched on his brow. He did not dare speak to the boy.
Hours later, Lukas sat alone in his study. His wife and son were gone by now. The sound of the clock ticking was deliberate and accusing. The shades were drawn over the window, simply because he had memorized the derelict and bomb torn landscape. A letter addressed to his son was already sealed and set on the desk.
He turned the revolver over in his hand. After all, what else did he have to comfort himself? The knowledge that his very hands had taken life from the man he once loved…or that he had destroyed his marriage…or all of the sunken faces of Macht Freiread the iron gates. Work makes you free.
Death would make him free.
His hand shaking, he pressed the barrel of the gun to the roof of his mouth and shut his eyes tight.