by Christopher Linforth
At the doorway to the barracks, Shoshana saw snow fall into the darkness. Now and then the searchlights scanning the camp illuminated the flurry of white, reminding her of the soap flakes her mother used to wash her clothes. She lifted the gauze from her wrist and picked at the scabby flesh that had grown over the blue numbers. She was tired of the factory, of the endless repetition, of the soreness and the bruises, the grease under her fingernails, the bread and lard rations that made her vomit, and the latrines smeared with dark, liquid shit. Dafna, a Czech woman from Karlsbad, called her away from the door. Shoshana did not want to hear her words. She was tired of listening to the older women.
Two soldiers approached the barracks and entered through the rear door. She estimated one of the men was a clear six inches taller than the other, his posture ramrod-straight. He gripped the barrel and stock of his rifle as if ready to fight his way through the room and strode through the group of women sewing dresses, ignoring the cries of the sick, who held each other in their beds, trying to keep warm. The shorter soldier spoke to a dark Polish girl, who sat cross-legged on the floor, writing a letter. He said Shoshana’s name and the girl pointed her out.
Shoshana thought of running, but her legs deadened beneath her cotton-rag dress and she grasped at her gray bonnet, which hid the shame of her hair. The soldiers marched past the long row of double-tiered bunks, their jackboots thudding on the concrete. The first soldier ordered her to follow him, and she crouched down, petrified of what he wanted. She whispered, No…no, trying to find something to hold on to. He lifted her up by her spindly arms, and the shorter man barked Jüdin and pushed her through the door. Out in the night air she heard Dafna’s broken German, her shouting at the soldiers to explain what was happening. The men did not reply and crossed the paved courtyard to a redbrick building, Shoshana stumbling behind them. Her feet were cold in the snow, and she looked at the bloated gray clouds that threatened to bring in a winter storm. She was thankful the wind numbed her body, that she would not feel what was about to come.
The building was situated past a dozen other barracks and a guarded warehouse, which contained, she had been told, food and medicine. Unlike the barracks, the officers’ quarters were warm and no draught circled through the paneled corridors. She was led into an office lit by the yellow flames of kerosene lamps. She had always disliked the burnt oil smell they produced and the difficulty of removing the liquid from clothes and bed linen. The soldiers left, allowing her a view of the dying embers glowing an unearthly red in the fireplace and a bookcase filled with dozens of large and important volumes, which were different to the paperbacks her family owned. Behind a large writing desk was a man she recognized as the Commandant. His shellacked salt-and-pepper hair was neatly parted on the right side and mirrored the rigid starch in his gray uniform. He was studying some documents and smoking a black-colored cigarette. After he signed several sheets, he put the papers in the desk drawer and coughed into his fist. He stared at her until she blushed.
—You are from Berlin, correct? His voice was low-pitched, controlled. He held up an index card with four typed sentences on the front.
She opened her eyes further, trying to reason why her name was on the card. She nodded gingerly.
—Good. That explains certain qualities.
Shoshana was confused. She searched his face for clues, tracing the fine lines of his neatly trimmed beard, and settled on his clear blue eyes, which resembled a young boy’s. His lips curled as he exhaled a long puff of gray smoke.
—I’ve been searching for girls like you, he said.
—Let me see your hair.
Shoshana hesitated and the Commandant grinned. He put down the index card and leaned back, his hands coming together on his chest.
—Before the war started, he said, I trained as an artist. Four years at the Karlsruhe Academy. I even exhibited at Alte Staatsgallerie and the Kupferstichkabinett. Several newspapers praised my paintings. I remember they said the girls were stripped of any modernist degeneration.
She did not know the meaning of his words, but she reasoned they described things cold and dark. He pointed to the oil paintings on the far wall, and she craned her neck to the four life-size portraits depicting girls around the same age as her. She guessed they were his daughters; the girls were thin and dressed in light blue frocks and had coifed blond hair cascading down their shoulders. A streak of jealousy ran through her, almost anger, and she imagined herself as one of the girls. She wanted their creamy skin and the deep rouge on their cheeks. She unknotted the straps of her bonnet, squashed the circle of soft cloth between her legs, and unclipped the brass pins that fastened her flaxen hair.
—Danke. You remind me of a girl I once knew in Linz, he said. She was very special.
—What was her name?
She smiled at the prettiness of the name.
—Do you like your hair? he asked.
—I don’t understand.
—It is a simple question.
She thought her hair felt matted and smelled of the factory. She did not like the cheap fatty soap she had been given by Dafna. She knew the women in the barracks were curious as to why she was allowed to keep her hair. Some said she was too young for the barber. Others countered that assertion by noting her work in the factory. A few pestered her to explain why she had not been sent away with the other young girls.
—They make me wear a hat, she said. She held up the gray bonnet that she had tried to bury in her lap.
—They want to take your hair, shave it off, he said. He watched for her reaction, and when her eyes reddened, he continued: I want you to keep it. I want you to be like them. He gestured to the pictures.
Taking a second look, she noticed the girls had porcelain skin and bright eyes that contrasted with the dark forest in the background. Each painting was enclosed within a gilt frame, like the photograph her mother kept of her grandparents. The girl in the last picture entranced her. Her ringlets appeared spun from gold; her dress blue like summer sky. She pointed at the girl and said: My mother sometimes dresses me like that.
—That is Ida, he said, nodding. He appeared as though he were on the verge of saying something else, but then changed his mind.
—I used to have many dresses, she said.
—You will again.
—I would like that.
—Are you ready to be like Ida?
—I do not know.
—Do not be afraid, he said warmly.
He rose from his chair and closed the door to his office. From the corner of the room he dragged an armchair to where she was standing. The dark green upholstery appeared expensive, and she was scared that the black lines of machine grease on her hands would stain the linen.
—Please, sit down, he said.
She perched on the edge of the seat cushion and leaned forward so that she would touch very little of the green fabric. He stooped down; his face close to hers. She could smell heavy smoke on his breath and the faint trace of cologne. He snatched at her arm, but she pulled it to her chest, unwilling to be touched.
—Do not worry, he said. I will not hurt you.
She held out her arm, and the Commandant instructed her to sit properly in the chair. He posed her forearms on the smooth oak rests and studied the bandage that hid her infected tattoo. She thought there was discomfort in his face as he adjusted her sleeves to reach the top of her wrists. He reminded her of one of her uncles, the way he reluctantly washed her the day after Yom Kippur with a coarse rag. She felt distant from him now, more attuned to the warmth of the Commandant’s fingers and his clean nails trimmed into smooth curves. Nervous, as he pushed her legs tightly together, she watched as he removed her brown leather shoes and put them by the door. Suddenly, the lice buried in the dirt between her toes embarrassed her, and she did not want him to see her this way; she wanted to be pure like her dress had once been.
—Look at me, he said; his voice direct and steady.
She lifted her eyes. His beard and moustache contained flecks of gray.
—Remove your star.
She tugged twice at the patch of yellow cloth, tearing the lapel of her dress to finally remove the star.
He reposed her arms and then sat behind his desk and sketched her for an hour. He said nothing the entire time, pausing only to drink coffee and to light another cigarette. He worked with a strange intensity, an acute gaze, which to Shoshana went beyond her cotton dress. It gave her an odd sense, one difficult to put into words. The Commandant reminded her of an older boy on the train to the camp who stared at her and continued to in Munich when the car filled with a dozen more Jewish families and he was squeezed against the planked side, boring his blunt eyes into her body. She remembered feeling sad, that he had wanted something from her, a part of her that she was willing to give. She searched for him after they were unloaded at the station. Men and women were divided into two separate groups. The women had gold jewelry taken and their shawl-bundles unraveled, the contents thrown into burlap sacks. At the same time, the men were kicked and spat on and herded into lines. Stripped of their wristwatches and Torahs, they were driven away in open-backed trucks. She had not seen the boy in the lineup and she wondered if he had been left behind in the cattle car.
The Commandant paused to examine his sketch. He drew his thumb across the paper and rubbed a section of the drawing. She tried to see what he had drawn, but he placed the sketchpad face down on the desk. He rested his elbows on the thick cardboard back and brought his hands to his forehead. Rubbing his temples, his eyes closed. She blamed herself for not being pretty enough. He will like me better in a blue cotton dress, she thought, trimmed with white lace. She leaned forward to say those words, but he stood and stepped over to the fireplace.
—Is it cold in here? he asked, lowering his hands to the ashes.
He opened a circular tin on the mantel and took out a large brown segment, which she was pleased to see was chocolate. He broke the slab in two and put one half in her hand and returned the rest to the tin. She clasped the chocolate tightly and felt the smudge of warmth.
—Tomorrow, he said. You will come back tomorrow.
Lying in bed, Shoshana played with the pleats of her dress. It was colored dun-brown, but she could tell it had once been bright white. She recalled the smell of bleach when she helped her mother with the laundry, adding starch to the water, running clothes through the mangle, and folding each blouse and dress into a pristine square. She could not recollect how long ago that was, only that her mother sent her to live with relatives in the country, a house later raided by men in heavy, gray uniforms. Perhaps she had been in the camp less than a month. Time was hazy. Yet she knew she had turned twelve a few days before and was younger than the other girls. Her breasts were still thin and small, and one girl teased her because she still had not bled.
Sometimes she thought she could see the faint outline of flowers in her dress, curved lines that Dafna pointed out were just dirt rings. Dafna had a shaven head covered with a Tichel, like the other married women. She also had a toothless mouth that had been fitted with gold fillings. She told Shoshana the day she arrived at the camp soldiers pulled out her teeth with an iron wrench. When Shoshana was assigned to her barracks and to her bunk, a plank shelf topped with a rag blanket, Dafna said she was the mother to anyone who had lost hers. Shoshana was not sure what Dafna meant by that. She knew her own mother would be arriving on next week’s train.
Dafna marched to the bunks at the far end of the room. A gong was rung. Shoshana remained still, not wanting to rise. The women next to her went to the latrines or boiled water for tea. She did not want to get up and go out into the frozen dark morning. She remembered the warmth of the Commandant’s office, as if the heat from the embers had washed over her. She eyed the women milling around the iron stove, gulping down the clear liquid and wiping their thin lips with a shared rag. She covered her face with her hands, unable to watch them anymore. Then she felt a cutting pressure on her wrist.
—Get up, said Dafna. Her eyes were dark, tar black.
—Yes, replied Shoshana.
From outside a shrill guard whistle sounded and the barks of Alsatians rumbled through the barrack’s walls. She slipped down from her bunk, shivering in the chill air. Avoiding Dafna’s gaze, she put on her shoes and went to the doorway. She braced herself for the snow, folded her arms over her chest, and followed the women to a gravel road and onward to the waiting trucks. Two soldiers flanked the women: the men trod in step, automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. A dour-faced officer, shivering in the cold, marked the women in his black leather notebook and read off the assigned vehicles. Shoshana counted thirty women in her truck. Some talked Yiddish, others German, and a group at the end she guessed were speaking in Polish. She squeezed in next to Dafna, who spoke to the three Czech girls in front of her.
—Today, we must work hard, said Dafna.
The truck sped down the road and stopped at the steel gates, where a solider briefly inspected the women and then waved them on. The land outside the camp flattened into a sea of snow, and Shoshana imagined the waves of white crashing onto the forest shore. The watchtowers, and the machine guns sighted on the women, drifted away into a series of far-off islands. Her eyes closed as she tried to ignore Dafna’s observations about the approaching brick buildings and the three tall chimneys. She had seen the structures numerous times before and she was tired of the same talk. When she did look out, she saw a group of laborers carrying tools into the entrance of the largest building. Dafna spat onto the truck bed and inched forward to spy on the men, trying to determine what they were doing. We must work hard, she repeated. We must endure. She lowered her head and carried on talking about her family and her hope they had survived the raids of the S.S.
It was less than a kilometer to the factory, and Shoshana heard the thrum of the machines inside: a loud pulsing sound interspersed with metallic crashes, as though something were constantly being raised and dropped. She could not imagine how she heard the other women’s voices each day and she feared she might go deaf. The truck braked hard outside of the factory. Each of them read the metalwork sign: ARBEIT MACHT FREI. Shoshana wanted to believe in the idea of work setting you free. She had labored for her mother as long as she could remember, helping with the sewing business run from their home. Several times a day women stopped by with suits in need of repair and instructions for fashioning wedding dresses and winter drapes from bolts of cloth and silk. But that routine seemed so far in the past now and her thoughts switched to the Commandant and the chocolate he had given her. She was ravenous for more and she dreamed she would not have to go to the factory each morning, but visit his office and sit in the chair to be drawn.
Fluorescent lights hung from skeletal steel beams and cast a murky glow across the assembly lines. Two long lines of women flanked the wrought iron machines, which Dafna once told Shoshana existed to produce aircraft parts for the bombers. The conveyer belt hummed as it cranked giant shards of metal along, and Shoshana disliked the women’s slack skin and hollow cheeks, and their bulging eyes focused on assembling the pieces. Her job was to fetch tools for the women or to pick up lost bolts. As she worked, she saw men from the other half of the camp at the next line. One man with a balding pate and arms raw with scabies collapsed to the ground. A soldier shouted at him to rise. When the man grasped at the soldier’s boots, the soldier struck him with the butt of his rifle. Through the day women were taken away and would return with bloodied faces and large tears in their dresses. She feared the same would happen to her. So when the guards passed, she made sure she was carrying a wrench set or sweeping the factory floor.
In the afternoon, Dafna tugged Shoshana’s sleeve and gestured to the Commandant entering their section of the factory. Shoshana admired his slim build and the polished silver buttons on his gray tunic. A rumor spread that he was inspecting the factory to make sure the production targets were on schedule. With the head of the work detail and the female attendant, he toured the assembly line and asked questions and pointed at the machines and the workers. She watched him listen intently to each of his staff, making notes in a leather-bound notebook, his pencil scratching at the paper as though he were still sketching her.
After evening roll-call, the women trudged to the factory’s makeshift canteen. Shoshana guessed it had existed once as a storage facility. There were rows of tables, and wooden barrels that held aluminum bowls and cups. The women picked up their bowls and cups and took them to the food station where haggard women with rawboned arms dished out stale bread, alongside greasy slivers of rancid lard, and ladles of watery meat stew. She sat at the table with Dafna and the other Czech girls. Their hands were raw and nicked with cuts and scrapes. She did not feel hungry; she felt numbed by the hard labor.
—You must eat, said Dafna.
Shoshana’s head dropped and she began to cry. I want my mother, she said.
Dafna settled her arm on Shoshana’s back and rubbed the soft skin between her shoulder blades. Dafna told her of family dinners, how she sat with her two daughters and ate česneková polévka, a rich, garlic soup and a course of houskové knedlíky, which she explained were potato flour dumplings.
—It is good to eat, she said.
Shoshana picked the black mold from her bread, thinking of past meals she shared with her mother and then of reasons why the Commandant had not spoken to her. She considered he had been preoccupied with the production targets or that he had found someone else, another girl from one of the neighboring barracks. She glanced at Dafna slurping the stew from her spoon. She wanted to tell her about the Commandant’s work, his life as an artist and his painting of Ida, but she could see in Dafna’s eyes that she would not understand.
Over the next few days, a winter storm submerged the camp in a thick blanket of snow. Shoshana studied the pine forest that covered the hills in the distance. The jagged points zigzagged across the sky, as if hiding a secret. She had heard of a path, a route out of the area. Some Jews, she had been told, had escaped. Found a way home. She liked that the trees were similar to the ones surrounding her relatives’ country house. She recalled climbing a mature alder with two of her cousins and grasping at the sloping leafy branches, which separated the tree from the surrounding pine. Now, as she realized the similarity between the forest and the backdrop of the Commandant’s paintings, she placed herself inside one of his landscapes, lovingly foregrounded in a lavish silk dress, and the Commandant painting her.
The light steadily diffused behind thickening clouds and the land darkened. Guards marched into the courtyard with a group of prisoners and ordered them to clear a series of paths between the buildings. Uninterested in the men, she focused on the smokestacks. Strange patterns emerged in the snow stuck to the sides of the chimneys. Whorls of a great fingerprint transformed into the outline of her mother’s face: her sharp eyes and her narrow, birdlike nose. She wondered where her mother was and what she was doing. Dafna had said her mother had not been on the last train.
In bed that night, the women who flanked her could not sleep because of hunger pains. They huddled together in a ball of ragged cotton and naked flesh. She drank their breaths and deep moans, reliving how the Commandant locked his eyes on her. Yet she did not understand why his presence drew an uneasy feeling, why her stomach hurt for him. To her relief, after the blizzard had settled in the morning, the Commandant sent his men to escort her to his office. She was glad to go back and rest in a place of warmth. The chair was in the middle of the room, but she dared not sit. She waited for his instructions. As he retrieved his sketchpad from his desk, he told her of his life before the war. He recounted stories of the women he had known and the daughters he had immortalized.
—I captured Ida at her pinnacle, he said. That summer in Linz, I could have painted her every day.
She detected an ache of sadness in his voice. I miss my mother, she said.
—Not your father?
—I do not remember him. He died when I was very young. She glanced at the paintings and lowered her eyes, afraid to meet his gaze. Where is Ida?
—She died of tuberculosis, he said, resting the sketchpad on his legs. But I refuse to think of such things. He stood and went to his bookshelf. His forefinger traced across the spines until he picked out an exhibition catalogue. He crouched down next to Shoshana so they were of equal height. She read the title, Entartete Kunst. The cover bore a picture of a sculpted African face with a flat, wide nose and thick curved lips. The distorted features were strange and new to her, and she wanted to see more. She turned the pages and let her fingers hover over the black-and-white images, as if she could absorb the works of art.
—The imagination is abhorrent, he said, pointing to a painting of crippled German soldiers. She had never seen a picture like this before, the crude lines of color and the angular bodies. The men looked cartoonish and weak as they paraded through a city street. Yet she did not understand his words, the reasons why he hated these images.
His face reddened, and he ran his hand through his short, gelled hair. He answered: It leads to a perversion of the real. As the Führer wrote, you cannot have an artist who paints a sky green and fields blue.
She giggled at the idea of the reversed colors until she noticed the anger in his gaze, and she became terrified that she had done something wrong.
—It is degenerate art. The artist of such things ought to be sterilized and his work destroyed. He closed the catalogue and stormed over to the paintings on the wall. This is beauty, he said.
Shoshana was confused by his ire and his words. Her eyes welled up.
—Tears will not help you, he said, or your people. He continued to stare at the painting of Ida and in a calm voice said, Please sit.
She settled on the chair and removed her shoes, ready to be drawn.
Over the next few hours, he positioned her in different poses. He stood her up with her arms loose by her side and then he got her to kneel with her hands clasped in prayer. None of his drawings satisfied him, and she wondered why he wanted her in his pictures. She was grateful, though. After he drew her, he gave her a bowl of hot vegetable broth and a cup of chicory coffee splashed with cognac.
That night, in the barracks, Shoshana lay on her hardwood bed replaying the taste of the food the Commandant had given her. Her tongue was burnt from the hot coffee, but she did not mind. She wanted more of the rich, woody flavor.
Dafna walked past her bunk and said Shoshana was becoming fat, that she had a glow of health not experienced by the other girls.
—What are they feeding you? she demanded. You should share any food you receive.
—Nothing. I do not receive anything.
—Your arms, legs, belly, are fat, she said. Dafna grabbed at Shoshana’s dress and tried to lift it up.
—Stop, please, said Shoshana. She was scared of Dafna and scared of the Commandant. She felt though they shared something special and that he was different to other men: the soldiers, and her uncles, and the rabbis in her neighborhood. She ran to her bunk, edged herself to the far side of the bed, and wrapped her blanket around her shoulders. I will give you whatever I get, she screamed.
Dafna grabbed Shoshana’s foot and pulled her off the mattress to the floor. Shoshana cried out and kicked Dafna’s shins, leading Dafna to bat Shoshana’s legs to the side and snatch her bonnet, holding it as if it were a prized jewel. She called to one of the Czech girls for a pair of scissors, and the girl retrieved them from a small gap between two bunks. Dafna dragged Shoshana to a chair, seated her in it, and signaled the girl to hold Shoshana’s arms. Shoshana struggled, but she had no strength in her body. The steel blades glided through her hair. Blond locks fell in clumps to the planked floor. She wept for her mother.
—She is not coming, said Dafna.
Dafna shook her head.
Shoshana surveyed the room to see if any of the other women would help her. But most were sleeping in the bunks, too tired to move.
—This is for your own good, explained Dafna. The women are envious.
—No! Shoshana screamed and twisted her neck, trying to avoid the slashing of her hair. She stopped when she saw Dafna had tears in her eyes and she let her head loll to the side, to let Dafna cut, to make her the same as the other women.
When Dafna finished she passed the scissors to the Czech girl. Shoshana slouched forward into Dafna’s arms, and Dafna cradled her and stroked her back. She sang a Czech nursery rhyme that Shoshana could not translate, whispering the chorus into her ear, telling her that her own mother used to sing it years before. When Dafna released her, she slunk to her bed and cried all night, not sleeping. Her hair had been reduced to tufts barely an inch long. She kept a handful of the locks under her thin pillow and ran her thumb over the greasy clumps, caressing the strands until dawn.
The following day Shoshana was not summoned to see the Commandant. Perhaps, she thought, he had caught the influenza that was spreading through the camp and had wanted time to recuperate. By the evening she was scared that he had found out about her hair. It was a blessing, she reasoned, when the soldiers came for her in the early morning. At first she struggled with them, in a show of pretense for the other women. When she saw Dafna was asleep, she relented and let them drag her outside.
The Commandant had brought a méridienne into his office. Taken from Paris, he boasted. He had arranged it against the wall with three silk pillows and a plain wool blanket. He instructed her to lie down. As she did so, he wiped the wet gloss from his forehead and picked up a leather-bound book from his chair. He flipped through the pages to show her a nineteenth-century painting titled, “Dornröschen.” The girl in the picture was sleeping supine on a bed, and Shoshana was immediately enamored with the girl’s beauty. Her delicate head rested on her fleshy forearm and a rouge-colored velvet blanket covered her pale body.
—Be like this, he said.
She lay down on the méridienne and arranged herself into the pose and drew the blanket over her chest.
—One day I will use oils, he said, to capture you.
She removed her bonnet and closed her eyes, curious as to the intensity of the moment. She lay down and crossed her arms, finding her own flesh to be the softest she had ever felt. Her fingertips danced over a dry patch of skin that she then rubbed and rubbed. She glimpsed down to see what marred her wrist and she saw that the Commandant had not opened his sketchpad.
—What is this? he asked.
The revulsion in his face alarmed her. He went over and knelt at her side, pawing her bare scalp, and running his fingers over the soft bumps and shallow grazes.
—I saved you from the barber. Are you not thankful?
She clasped her hands to her cheeks and then drew her fingers together in front of her mouth. She wanted to speak, to explain to him what had happened, tell him that her hair would grow back and he could draw her again. But the words would not come.
The Commandant’s head dropped and he went to the door. He turned and threw his sketchpad, and she, in return, raised her arms to protect her face. The sheaf of papers ricocheted off her wrists and the sheets scattered to the floor. She stared at the detailed pencil drawings of her face and body. The beauty he saw in her astonished her. Her cheeks were plump and her eyes were clear. But something about the sketches did not make sense.
—This is Ida, she said.
—Geh weg, he spat. His face reddened and he removed his peaked cap to wipe the sweat from his forehead. He replaced his cap and smoothed down the creases on his tunic. He opened the door to his office and called in the guards, ordering them to take her away. They grabbed her arms and hauled her out of the room. Her bare feet dragged on the floorboards in a last effort to stay. The taller guard pushed open the door and a blast of icy wind struck them.
—Wait, she said. Wait.
The guard balanced himself on the steps and shielded his eyes. He led Shoshana into the courtyard. Her thin wrist slipped from his grip and suddenly there was a short distance between them. The second guard sneered and kicked her in the stomach, and she crumpled into the ash-colored snow, holding her bruised abdomen. He ordered her to the barracks. As she stood, she saw across the courtyard the electrified fence at the camp’s perimeter and the wooded hills beyond. She spun around, searching for a world beyond the Commandant’s. She wanted to escape, to get away from the camp and the factory. She imagined the path in the forest and the dirt trail snaking back to her home and to her mother cleaning clothes in the laundry. Her mother rose from her stooped position and beckoned Shoshana to bring over the bleach. She could see her mother’s face against the white sheets, smiling and then vanishing as a terrible burnt smell seeped from her body. At first Shoshana thought she smelled the kerosene from the Commandant’s office. Then, as she staggered back to the barracks, she noticed the thick clouds overhanging the smokestacks and the sky changing to a blackened green.
CHRISTOPHER LINFORTH has fiction published or forthcoming in Gargoyle, Southern Humanities Review, Whiskey Island, and other other magazines. He blogs at christopherlinforth.wordpress.com